Trends in Occupational Health

Conditions in factories, mines, mills, and industrial plants of all types have undergone a major revolution in the past thirty-five years. Of course, in i970 one could have said pretty much the same thing. Working conditions and environments in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world have improved continuously for many decades. In line with the growing environmental awareness of the i960s and i970s, unions began to recognize hazardous conditions as an important bargaining issue. High wages and better hours, the traditional bargaining points for unions, are all very well, but if the membership is getting sick from brown lung disease, chronic silicosis, etc., higher wages aren't much good. A number of strikes and key bargaining sessions in this period stressed environmental conditions in plants, and exposure to toxic substances was high on the list of grievances.

Not very long ago (a quarter of a century or so), some workers in the United States were still breathing poisonous fumes without using respirators; handling corrosive solvents that produced skin rashes; or coming home covered with creosote, asbestos dust, metal particles, etc. Those days should be behind us in the United States and the Western world, although many countries in the third world and some in Eastern Europe lag behind on the issue of worker safety.

In i970 Congress passed a landmark law called the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). As part of the act, OSHA requires companies to maintain extensive records of fatalities, illnesses, and worker health; post signs informing workers of their rights; deal with inspectors; correct citations for unsafe conditions; and keep records of all of this. The outcry from industry against OSHA was long and hard. Many industrial groups felt that the law and the new federal agency were a terrible blow to their sovereignty and independence, not to mention their ability to function. OSHA became one of the favorite targets of right-wing antiregulatory movements of the 1980s. Small businesses, which are not exempt from OSHA rules, claimed that just doing all the paperwork involved in OSHA compliance was so costly as to make the difference between profit and loss. In fact some of the regulations (as is true for many regulations) seemed absurd and arbitrary.

And yet, in the end, as costly, burdensome, and annoying as all of these regulations have been, they have worked. Since 1970, the rate of work-related death has decreased over 80 percent in U.S. factories and other workplaces. The rates of injuries and occupationally induced illnesses have similarly decreased. Unions welcomed the arrival of the OSHA inspectors, and although union membership has decreased steadily, even workers in nonunion shops came to realize that without OSHA many more of them would be dead or dying.

The interesting truth about toxic exposure in factories, homes, and elsewhere is that it is almost always very simple to avoid danger once the knowledge and will to do so exist. Often simply using an exhaust fan (as in the case of high radon in home basements, and in many factory situations) reduces the air levels of toxic gases and particulate aerosols to a point where there is no threat of ill effects. Respirators have become cheaper, more comfortable, and more efficient. New fabrics have enabled the production of protective clothing (the so-called moon suits worn by people cleaning up toxic-waste sites) that prevent any exposure to even the most caustic or corrosive chemicals. Suppliers of chemicals now ship material-data sheets along with their products. These sheets detail all possible safety hazards associated with the use of the chemical and the best ways to avoid exposure.

Although great strides have been made in controlling acute toxicity from exposure to chemicals in the workplace, the identification and control of those chemicals that cause chronic disease decades after exposure is still with us. Although no one should any longer be exposed to asbestos (as an example), people who were exposed in the past are still at risk of getting ill because the incurable form of cancer known as mesothelioma, which is the result of exposure, usually appears two to four decades after exposure.

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