Friday, April 5, 2013

A dark side of working with chemicals

A picture from inside the cushion-making plant
Credit: New York Times
From the New York Times, a sad and disappointing piece about furniture workers and their (over)-exposure
to n-propylbromide containing glues:
For about five years, Ms. Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names like Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Ms. Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.” 
A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years. 
Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, where Ms. Farley was employed, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, failed to provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.
If you read the article, you'll fine that it's full of terrible little gems about life at the bottom of the American manufacturing chain and their rather horrifying approach to worker safety like this one:
...One, Sonia Richards, arrived with her own respirator, but a manager told her to put it away, saying it was spooking other workers. In whispers, new employees were warned to visit the bathroom whenever the fog grew thick. 
“If you don’t clear your head,” a worker recalled being told, “it will clear you.” 
...Again and again, Royale workers got sick and contacted OSHA. Inspectors came and went. Little changed. 
Company officials were told to ventilate to the outside. They bought pedestal fans instead, and when OSHA inspectors returned, they found the fans turned off or malfunctioning. OSHA demanded respirators that would have cost the company $18. Managers instead handed out 90-cent dust masks* — the type inspectors had told them were useless in blocking vapors.
A few thoughts:

A chemistry note: Is anyone surprised at the apparent neurotoxicity of working around 100-200 ppm levels of n-propyl bromide day in and day out in a facility with inadequate ventilation? The chemical worker's best friend, the liver, is probably overwhelmed at that point. (I wonder what the acute toxicity comes from? Its ability to get into the bloodstream? The toxicity of n-propanol?

#Chemophobia, in the wrong places: There is a rather strange focus with consumer safety groups on the toxicity problem with end users. It's always about "toxic couches", i.e. consumers are being poisoned with products. It seems to me that their concern should be about the possible short-term/long-term effects on the manufacturing workers (who are exposed to much more than the end consumer) and the community surrounding the manufacturing facility.

Jobs Americans will or won't do: There are a lot of terrible jobs in this country, and there's a lot of people lined up to do them. As the article says:
As fast as workers were getting sick, managers found replacements.“Folks was limping in and getting worse,” said Dewaun Teague, a former Royale manager. “Then they would be let go, and we would hire more.”
Whenever folks talk about how people aren't willing to put up with Foxconn-like worker safety conditions in this country, I think about cases like these. The article talks about how hesitant the local physician was at mentioning his concerns to OSHA. People might be uneducated, but I think most people know from where the money flows.

Finally, OSHA: The article has a rather depressing section about the ineffectualness of OSHA. I do not love the regulatory state, but if you're going to have one, you might as well have an effective one. It's pretty clear (to me, anyway) that we have a regulatory agency that has a tiny budget, a tiny inspection staff and an overly broad mandate (for its budget and staff.)

I am hesitant to suggest policy, but if I could make one change to the system, it would be moving away from this idea of discreet fines, because it sets up bad incentives to pay the fine, rather than fix the problem:

Mr. Michaels, whose tenure leading OSHA since December 2009 has been characterized by more aggressive enforcement than that of his most recent predecessors, cites a deeper problem: the small amount that OSHA can levy in fines. The maximum penalty for a violation that causes a “substantial probability of death — or serious physical harm” is $7,000. The highest fine for a willful and repeated violation is $70,000... 
[snip] “If the cost of compliance to our rules outweighs the penalties for breaking them, companies just take a ‘catch me if you can’ approach to worker safety and health,” he said. And serious violations of the rules should not be misdemeanors, he said, but felonies, much like insider trading, tax crimes and antitrust violations.
It seems to me that the answer is to peg the fines to something other than an absolute number; perhaps a percentage of gross revenue or net worth of the company would be a better target. (It works for speeding in Switzerland (where you're fined a percentage of your income), so why not here?)

All in all, a terribly sad article to read.

*This actually reminded me of a time when a senior manager at a former employer for told me that "the activated carbon in this dust mask is really working!" I didn't have the heart to go get a dust mask and cut it open to show him that there was no carbon in it.


  1. Well, it is a race to the bottom!
    Wage-wise, working condition-wise, etc.

    The USA will be new China, or worse.
    Hyper-capitalism at work in both countries. Enjoy the ride!

  2. Reading this is so frustrating. There is a mindset that safety costs money so don't bother. Not being safe in handling chemicals is more expensive but this cost is being born by the workers and (indirectly) by taxpayers. This contributes to chemophobia because of perception of dangerous chemicals. Everything about this story is AAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH

    -- Unstable Isotope

  3.! I worked my way through undergrad at an autobody shop and we had laminar flow, tyvek suits, and all kinds of respiratory protection. This article terrifies me for the employees there.

  4. How deep down the DOL rabbit hole do you want to go? I've been collecting stories, and biding my time while I try to get out. I was thinking of going to Ken Ward, Jr. when I got out, but if you'd like the stories...this is only the tip of the iceberg.

  5. And meanwhile the right-wing talk show hosts go on about "job-killing regulations" and "the nanny state".

  6. It is a nanny state. It's just not a terribly well-informed one. #chemophobia


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