It was one of those comments that will go down in history as one of the most memorable expressions of business insensitivity. Robert K. Phillips, executive secretary of the National Peach Council, put it this way in a formal letter on September 12, 1977, to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA):
“While involuntary sterility caused by a manufactured chemical may be bad, it is not necessarily so. After all, there are many people now paying to have themselves sterilized to assure they will no longer be able to become parents. “If possible sterility is the main problem, couldn’t workers who were old enough that they no longer wanted to have children accept such positions voluntarily? Or could workers be advised of the situation, and some might volunteer for such work posts as an alternative to planned surgery for a vasectomy or tubal ligation, or as a means of getting around religious bans on birth control when they want no more children?”
Incredible as Phillips’ statement may sound to human beings, the part of his suggestion which recommends that workers be advised of their workplace exposure to a chemical is ahead of its time. The federal government still has not decided to require employers to list the names of chemicals used in the workplace so that workers can take precautions or actions to protect their health and safety.
On Sept. 27, 1976, Congressman Andrew Maguire (D-N.J.) and our Health Research Group petitioned OSHA to require that each employer both post and provide employees with a list of the generic names of all chemicals used and produced at the workplace.
THERE IS AMPLE evidence of the need for such communications. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has found one out of every four American workers is exposed to chemical hazards on the job. Each day, about 300 workers die from an occupational disease and, as pathologists learn more, that estimate keeps increasing.
Often the employers do not know of the hazards because the substances are identified by their advertised trade names rather than by their generic or chemical composition. NIOSH is presently gathering this chemical information from over 10,000 manufacturers for the first time.
The need to notify workers, however, continues to be ignored. Indeed, the federal government has not even informed workers who they know are being exposed daily to cancer-causing substances in specific factories. Recently, a policy paper by NIOSH did recognize that “workers have a right to know about workplace hazards.”
Translating this principle into action is another matter. OSHA still has not responded to the above-mentioned petition over a year later. Such information can be hazardous to industrial tyranny over workplace health conditions. Here is how:
Once workers know what they are working with at the shop, they start putting questions — to their union, to the plant doctor, to OSHA (the federal job safety agency) and to their political representatives.
The 1970 federal occupational health law could also be more readily utilized to push for the establishment and enforcement of standards for these chemicals.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING could be used to result in safer working conditions if the evidence of existing hazards was assembled. Factory inspections could be ordered and medical examinations taken for workers and their families to see if they are also affected. These actions are best taken earlier rather than later. Employees can receive more adequate payments under workers’ compensation laws.
When such information is publicly available, the media, ranging from medical journals to popular press, can convey what is going on to wider audiences of concerned people.
An action and education organization of Delaware Valley local unions and legal and health professionals is leading a petition drive to get OSHA to require employers to supply such information to exposed workers. The group, called PHILAPOSH (the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health), also wants workers to have the right of access to their personal medical records.
Interested readers can write to PHILAPOSH for copies of the petitions at 1321 Arch St., Phila. PA 19107.