We watch in horror as breaking news tells us of the latest gun violence that has claimed innocent lives in a workplace, a home, or a school. We grieve for the loss of innocent lives and talk as a nation about mental health treatment and gun control. And we are right to do so.

But there is another type of preventable death that is occurring in significantly higher numbers that gets very little attention in the media. These are deaths that occur because of occupational diseases. According to government estimates, about 50,000 people lose their lives each year because of occupational illnesses—this is about 20,000 people more than those who lose their lives to gun violence each year in the United States.

And We Should Be Talking About Protecting People From Occupational Illnesses Too

Many workplace illnesses occur because workers are exposed to toxic substances. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is in charge of protecting workers from the dangers of toxins; however, the agency is reportedly unable to do so effectively. According to information released by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has chemical exposure limits that are up to 1,000 times stronger than OSHA’s limits for the same chemicals. OSHA’s chief reportedly told the Center for Public Integrity that, “With a few exceptions, OSHA’s standards to protect workers from chemical exposures are weak and out of date, or simply non-existent.”

The process for passing new regulations regarding chemical controls in the workplace is long, it is expensive, and it is often not a political priority. Therefore, few standards are developed and many workers are put at risk of developing serious and potentially fatal illnesses. According to the New York Times, OSHA devotes more of its attention to “here-and-now dangers” rather than “silent, slow killers”. The New York Times reports that over the past 40 years only 16 standards for exposure limits have been developed, and exposure limits for tens of thousands of dangerous chemicals and substances are left up to the discretion of individual employers. These employers may choose to use dangerous toxins and they may choose the safety precautions to put in place to prevent these toxins from coming into contact with employees’ skin or lungs.

This discretion leaves workers vulnerable. It is the chemicals that cause these long term illnesses and eventual fatalities that take more lives than other workplace accidents. The same New York Times article cited above indicates that OSHA is woefully underfunded and that the federal budget for protecting workers is less than half the federal budget for protecting fish and wildlife.

And So the Danger Continues

While there are tens of thousands of dangerous chemicals in U.S. workplaces, it is important to bring attention to one of the toxins that many people believe has already been regulated. That toxin is asbestos and it is an example of the serious danger still faced by American workers. Asbestos has been regulated in the United States for several decades; however, some workers are still exposed to it and face serious, life-threatening dangers such as mesothelioma or lung cancer. Media reports such as one by NPR at the end of 2015 warn of a third wave of asbestos-related disease that is impacting American workers.

Are You Worried About Worker Safety?

The information provided above is troubling. American workers are at risk of suffering serious, life changing or life ending diseases from the toxins they breathe in at work, and they are not always adequately protected by the government or by their employers.

Yet, these illnesses and deaths are not inevitable. More can be done to prevent workers from getting sick. Please help us raise awareness of these risks. Share this blog on Facebook and Twitter and encourage your friends and followers to take action. Let’s talk about this risk with employers, with government officials, and with each other. Let’s remember our coworkers who have died and let’s protect ourselves, our coworkers, and our children from these workplace dangers. And, if you’ve become sick, please remember to take action quickly because your time to file a workers’ compensation claim is limited.

Christopher J. Hudson
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Local Augusta lawyer specializing in mass tort workers' comp, car accident and personal injury claims.
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