By Myra Karstadt

During World War II, the United States was the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and American manufacturing literally won the war.  After World War II and through approximately 1970, Americans manufactured and exported more goods than any other country, and the manufacturing sector’s robust state provided workers with enviable incomes and job security. The United States is no longer the manufacturing powerhouse it was, and these days it sometimes seems the most notable product and export of the U.S.A. is dubious financial instruments.

Even though manufacturing and heavy industry generally may no longer be central to the country’s industrial base, the problem of worker exposure to hazardous chemicals remains.  The decline of manufacturing, where workplaces might have had unions and been relatively large, might even make the issue of hazards of worker exposure to hazardous chemicals more important and more problematic. Workers in industries not thought of in the past as chemical-dependent may be more likely to be working in small facilities and less likely to have union representation and/or access to occupational health professionals, and they may well be unfamiliar with chemical hazards.  In fact, workers in industries not previously seen as primarily concerned with chemicals could be likened to bystander workers, exposed to hazardous substances being used by others in their vicinity but who are themselves unprotected and untrained.

The issue of information needed by workers exposed to chemicals has always been the same: who needs to know what?  

The “who” part of the question is easy to answer.

As noted above, workers in manufacturing and non-manufacturing industries alike may have significant exposure to hazardous chemicals.  Examples of non-manufacturing workers with possible exposures to hazardous chemicals abound.  For instance, people who work in auto repair and body shops may be exposed to asbestos, fibrous glass, talc, plastic resin monomers, and solvents (potentially carcinogenic and/or neurotoxic).  People in other types of repair shops- more common in days of old, when consumers fixed appliances such as mixers, toasters and even TVs rather than discard them- had extensive exposures to various solvents, and repair work of various types still typically involves use of solventsThose who repair appliances- a practice less common than it used to be- may be exposed to high levels of hazardous chemicals, since repair work often involves the use of solvents.   Refurbishing furniture, a popular approach in this Craig’s List and flea-market age, can result in furniture strippers being exposed to methylene chloride.  Housekeeping workers in office buildings and hospitality facilities such as hotels and convention/conference centers may be exposed to hazardous cleaning materials.    

Chemical exposures in non-manufacturing industries may be particularly interesting because those exposures may extend to consumers.  People who fix cars at home, work as artists (stained glass, plastic sculpture) at home, or do fix-it jobs or work with their children on projects involving plastics or solvents all need information on what they’re working with.  The National Library of Medicine has a data base that includes several thousand unedited material safety data sheets (MSDS) and is called the “Household Products Database.”  There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent resource, holding MSDSs and accessible on-line free of charge, available for workers.

So it’s clear that all workers, whether in industrial sectors that have long experience with using chemicals or in sectors that have not usually been thought of as having extensive exposure to chemicals, may well have significant exposure to hazardous chemicals.     

The question of “what” people exposed to hazardous chemicals need to know is harder than the issue of who needs the information.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was established during Congressional hearings and in government reports that workers generally didn’t know the identity of the chemicals to which they were being exposed.  At that time, it was acceptable practice to have containers in the workplace labeled “Mix A” or “Product 146,” without identification of the chemicals in the containers.  The worker right-to-know movement was predicated on the importance of giving workers the identity of the chemicals to which they were being exposed, so that there would be no more “mystery containers.” 

The federal government has developed two federal worker-right-to-know regulations.  The first, the Hazards Identification proposed regulation, had as its principal goal giving workers chemical identity information.  Confidential treatment for chemical identity was severely restricted, especially when it came to extremely hazardous chemicals such as carcinogens.  The Hazards Identification proposed regulation was “label-based,” with chemical identity information appearing on the label of any container of a product with a covered chemical.  Having a label-based regulation would be particularly helpful for a worker in a small or non-union facility, since the worker would not have to ask permission to see a list or a product safety manual, but would only need to look at the label for the container he was using.

As noted in a previous post, the Hazards Identification proposed regulation, which appeared as a “midnight reg” just before the end of the Carter Administration and the beginning of the Reagan Administration, was withdrawn soon after its publication by the anti-labor Reagan appointees to the Department of Labor.  The idea of giving workers information on the identities of the chemicals with which they were working was anathema to the chemical companies and other big businesses to which the Reagan Administration was highly responsive.

The Reagan Administration’s proposal for dealing with worker right-to-know, the Hazard Communication Standard, became final in 1983, and has been in effect ever since.  That standard not only downplays worker access to the identity of chemicals to which they are exposed, but provides for virtually unlimited confidentiality for any chemical, no matter how hazardous.  Rather than provide workers with chemical identity data, HazCom gives workers the right to see material safety data sheets (MSDSs) prepared by their employers or the manufacturer (or marketer) of a product.  The MSDSs are supposed to provide evaluated toxicity information for chemicals, but safeguards to ensure high quality of those evaluations are seriously lacking.  (In fact, the HazCom standard is a travesty, and needs to be replaced or given a major re-do; some problems with HazCom were identified in my February post on MSDSs, and a subsequent post will deal with that issue in greater detail.)

These days, MSDSs are usually available through product marketers’ websites, but results of a recent preliminary research project established that that is not always the case:  some marketers don’t have Websites, some don’t link MSDSs directly (or easily) with product descriptions on the Website, and some companies require a written request to release MSDSs.  Previously identified problems with toxicity information provided on MSDSs persist: many contain out-of-date or inaccurate information, and data may be inconsistent, even within groups of MSDS from a single company.  Even with some efforts at OSHA to improve MSDSs (proposed regs), the sheets are unlikely to improve meaningfully for workers and consumers without major changes in HazCom and in OSHA’s implementation and enforcement of the regulation.

What are the special problems likely to be for workers in non-manufacturing industries who use chemicals and rely on HazCom for protection against unsafe chemical exposures?  Since workers may well be in small non-union facilities relative to the large facilities used in classic manufacturing, occupational safety and health staff may not be available through the employer.  Similarly, union health and safety personnel may be unavailable to non-union shops (and these days even unions with occupational health and safety staff may have cut back, so even union shops may have a difficult time obtaining the technical assistance they would have expected a few decades ago).  Because both labels and MSDSs may require extensive interpretation to be useful to workers, lack of access to company safety and health staff at the worker’s facility, inability to get help from union safety and health staff, and OSHA’s (and NIOSH’s) failures to reach out to workers with interpretation of training materials, workers in non-industrial settings may have particular problems obtaining and interpreting data on hazardous chemicals.   

What if the current “post-industrial” condition turns out to be only temporary?  What if the U.S. is successful in creating a major manufacturing industry based on “green” technology?  Previous experience with fabrication of computer chips could be instructive as regards safety and health issues.  During the period when chips were being fabricated in clean rooms in the U.S., one thing you could have said about the clean rooms was that it was good to be a chip in a clean room, but not so good to be a worker.  The workers were exposed to a variety of common solvents and exotic materials, such as special metals.  Workers needed information on those chemicals, and it would appear that not much was done by employers to give workers those important data on possible hazards of chemical exposures during chip fabrication.

It’s interesting to speculate about where workers for new industries would come from, and whether those workers would be sophisticated users of chemicals- because they came from manufacturing-sector industries that have laid off many workers who were used to dealing with chemical hazards- or whether the “green” technology workers would be new to manufacturing and, possibly, unsophisticated users of chemicals.  It might be wise for OSHA and NIOSH to begin to plan for new workers with likely specialized needs for information on the consequences of exposure to some exotic chemical products, as well as exposure to solvents of varying degrees of novelty.  
So what’s needed now to provide workers with adequate information on the chemicals with which they’re working?  In an ideal situation, we would start from scratch, providing for fully informative labels and support from OSHA (and NIOSH) for publications and data- sharing sessions during which chemical hazards in particular workplaces could be discussed with federal agency personnel.  OSHA would also be providing funding for labor unions and industry groups (or associations) working together in labor-management consortia or separately.  If we’re going to be stuck with MSDSs and HazCom, some careful and, at the same time, aggressive work by OSHA will be needed to get meaningful data out to workers.   NIOSH has a role to play, too, in educating healthcare providers about problems associated with workplace chemical exposures.  Ties will have to be established with EPA, since that agency’s decisions on chemical carcinogenicity can affect OSHA and since EPA does not have a good record providing public information on hazardous chemicals, either in or out of the workplace.

Finally, there’s an important role to be played by unions.  Union health and safety experts have played major roles in advocating for control of toxic chemicals and have worked hard to counsel workers about prevention of exposures to hazardous chemicals.  Unions will have to make sure OSHA and NIOSH, in the hands of leadership sympathetic to workers for the first time in many years, provide resources adequate to ensure that all workers obtain the information they need to protect themselves against hazardous chemicals.

Myra L. Karstadt, Ph.D is a consultant in toxicology, and is located in Chevy Chase, MD.