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New York Times feature explores occupational illness, regulatory inadequacies

The New York Times’ Ian Urbina released an important exposé over the weekend about workers at a North Carolina furniture company who have been sickened by a chemical used in the furniture glue. 

The chemical, 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, Urbina reported. “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,” Urbina wrote.

The Times also reported how with a limited budget, OSHA often does not have the manpower to respond all workplace health and safety issues, so responds more to “here and now” dangers than to occupational illness.

“OSHA devotes most of its budget and attention to responding to here-and-now dangers rather than preventing the silent, slow killers that, in the end, take far more lives,” Urbina wrote. “Over the past four decades, the agency has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic. But for the tens of thousands of other dangerous substances American workers handle each day, employers are largely left to decide what exposure level is safe.”

“Chronic ailments caused by toxic workplace air — black lung, stonecutter’s disease, asbestosis, grinder’s rot, pneumoconiosis — incapacitate more than 200,000 workers in the United States annually,” the Times reported. “More than 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work — 10 times as many as those who die from the refinery explosions, mine collapses and other accidents that grab most of the news media attention.”

National COSH responded to the Times exposé with a letter to the editor underscoring the importance of preventing occupational illness.

We pointed out that although approximately 50,000 workers develop an occupational illness every single year, the federal government sits on rules that could help prevent workers from developing occupational illnesses, such as a proposed rule that would prevent workers from being exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust on the job, which has remained mired at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for more than two years.

Additionally, Congress has made no progress on legislation that would fix these problems and more, such as through a stronger OSH Act or federal Right to Know law. Some state legislatures are even trying to weaken existing Right to Know laws.

National COSH also noted a flaw in the exposé: Urbina had conflated the OSHA agencies responsible in this North Carolina case. He referenced the federal OSHA program, when in reality, it was North Carolina’s state OSHA program that failed the workers.

We need stronger federal oversight of state OSHA programs to ensure that they are “at least as effective” as the federal agency, as required by law, National COSH argued in the letter.

But despite the above error, National COSH commends Urbina and the Times for this badly needed piece highlighting a critically important worker safety issue.

Urbina enjoyed similar accolades from the Columbia Journalism Review, which praised the author and the outlet for devoting so many column inches to covering an important federal agency and for backing up the story with copies of the furniture company’s OSHA logs to boot.

 But CJR also pointed out that the Times piece could have been even stronger.

“This story—like so many others—is about a company using demonstrably dangerous practices for costs reasons, and a compromised regulatory regime. Period. Full stop,” CJR wrote.

“The Times betrays a strange ambivalence about calling out business malpractice and regulatory failure when it calls OSHA an agency that “many American love to hate”—since when and where’s the evidence?

The Times here—for whatever reason—soft-pedals a straightforward exposé by cloaking it in some gauzy idea of unintended consequences. And there’s no need for it.”