Saving Money, Poisoning Workers
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Published: April 4, 2013
The workers at Royale Comfort Seating in Taylorsville, N.C., had a simple but grueling job. For 10 hours at a stretch they spray-glued pieces of polyurethane foam into shapes that became the spongy filling of cushions sold to many top furniture brands. Unfortunately, the glue contained a dangerous chemical known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB, and the spray guns left a yellowish fog in the air that coated everything in sight. Exposure to the toxic fumes left some workers so dizzy at the end of the day that they walked as if drunk. Worse yet, many developed long-term ailments. One worker can no longer stand or sit for more than 20 minutes without feeling excruciating pain in her spine and legs. Another lost control of his hands and could not put on clothes without help. Medical experts and even companies that once made nPB had long warned that the chemical can cause neurological damage when inhaled at low doses for long periods. So how could it happen that Royale Comfort’s workers, whose plight was described in painful detail by Ian Urbina in The Times last Sunday, were exposed to it? There is plenty of blame to go around — a company trying to save a buck, timid regulators and weak laws. The main responsibility lies with the employer, which repeatedly invoked the specter of competition from Chinese manufacturers as an excuse not to spend money to protect its employees. When state inspectors told company officials to ventilate fumes to the outside, they bought pedestal fans instead and often turned them off. When inspectors demanded respirators that would have cost $18, managers handed out 90-cent dust masks that could not block the vapors. The regulatory failure belonged mainly to state occupational health officials who were deputized by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to do inspections and rectify problems. Some two dozen other states have such arrangements. North Carolina’s inspectors typically responded to worker complaints and made suggestions for improvements but then failed to follow up or pressure the company. Or they were simply ignored — as when the company refused to stop using the glue because alternatives would be more expensive. The federal government was also complicit. OSHA preferred to focus on immediate safety issues rather than the silent, slow health threats that ultimately take more lives. And it never set a standard limiting exposures to nPB, despite longstanding scientific warnings. The Environmental Protection Agency did, in fact, recommend a limit, and even considered a ban, but lacked the political will to follow through. Ineffective laws and regulations played a role as well. The fines OSHA can levy are small: a maximum of $7,000 for a willful violation that causes a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm, and violations are misdemeanors, not felonies with longer jail terms. The agency’s authorizing statute and a string of Supreme Court decisions have made the standard-setting process extremely time-consuming — nearly eight years to issue a new worker protection rule according to one government study. And its budget, which is less than half what is set aside for fish and wildlife protection, is small compared with its responsibilities. Many of these problems are addressed in a Senate bill called the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which has gone nowhere but was recently reintroduced by Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington. It would greatly increase penalties by allowing for felony charges, for example, and would strengthen whistle-blower protections, among other provisions. But with House Republicans fervently opposed to regulation in general, the bill’s prospects are dim, despite what the Royale Comfort case tells us is a pressing need for tighter laws. A version of this editorial appeared in print on April 5, 2013, on page A22 of the New York...
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