Media Moves

Looking into OSHA

April 1, 2013

Posted by Liz Hester

The New York Times’ Ian Urbina wrote an incredible story covering worker safety, unenforced regulations and the role of the government agency tasked with overseeing the nearly 8 million work sites in the U.S.

The story, which details problems in a North Carolina cushion-making factory, shows how chronic under enforcement of safety rules can harm many of those who can least afford a health crisis.

A chemical she handled — known as 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. 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.

Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, where Ms. Farley was employed, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, failed to provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.

But the story of the rise of nPB and the decline of Ms. Farley’s health is much more than the tale of one company, or another chapter in the national debate over the need for more, or fewer, government regulations. Instead, it is a parable about the law of unintended consequences.

It shows how an Environmental Protection Agency program meant to prevent the use of harmful chemicals fostered the proliferation of one, and how a hard-fought victory by OSHA in controlling one source of deadly fumes led workers to be exposed to something worse — a phenomenon familiar enough to be lamented in government parlance as “regrettable substitution.”

One of the more interesting parts of the story was about a local doctor who felt compelled to write a letter to OSHA begging them to enforce the rules, but also to keep in mind that many in the area were unemployed and that the state needed the jobs provided by the factory. It was a great way to illustrate some of the problems hourly workers face in the current economy.

Royale workers became regular visitors at local health clinics, including the Clinic for People Without Health Insurance, then run by Dr. Ben Wofford.

Looking like “upright cadavers,” Dr. Wofford said, cushion workers arrived unable to stand on their own, supported under their arms by family members. They had showered and changed out of their work clothes, he said, but their breath still carried an odor he remembered from his boyhood days putting together model airplanes.

He had watched for years as his patients’ suffering worsened with the bottoming out of the state’s tobacco, textile and furniture industries. When people are out of work, he explained in an interview in his office above the pharmacy in Newton, N.C., a diabetic ulcer that would normally cost a toe takes a leg. Their nonfatal hernia bleeds them to death.

“You kill jobs,” Dr. Wofford said, “you kill patients.”

Reluctantly, he wrote a letter in 2005 alerting OSHA about problems at Royale. One worker was in especially bad shape, he wrote: “Indeed he may die as a result of his exposure.”

But Dr. Wofford also urged OSHA not to overreact. “I would hate to see this plant’s multiple shortcomings result in its being shut down,” he wrote, warning of jobs that could be lost. “Many are my patients and are already in dire straits economically.”

The other side of the story is that the plant claims it can’t afford to make changes to the glue or to the factory configuration, saying it’s too costly.

In a recent interview, Mr. Isenhour, Royale’s safety director, said the company never meant to harm anyone and initially did not realize the hazards of nPB. Royale has continued using nPB glues, he added, because alternatives are ineffective or risky.

Glues that use acetone, for example, are popular but highly flammable, he said. Converting the Royale plant to meet federal rules on fire safety would entail replacing the glue-spraying booths with metal walls, installing sprinklers and explosion-proof lighting and retraining workers, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, he added.

In 2005, when seven workers became seriously ill at one plant, Mr. Isenhour said, Royale had to lay off 40 people, close the facility and spend $50,000 to move operations to another site and upgrade the ventilation there. OSHA found high levels of fumes in subsequent years because no one informed the company that fans and filters needed cleaning for ventilation to work properly, he said.

If the company switched to a more expensive glue, he said, he would have to raise the price of each cushion, and the furniture makers Royale supplies would contract with Chinese competitors instead.

“We are trying to keep jobs in America,” he said. “But that’s expensive.”

Both government officials and employers weigh the costs and benefits of protective measures. Many studies show that investing in workplace safety saves money in the long run, but economists say that does not prove true in every case. This, of course, raises the most difficult calculus of all: comparing the worth of a dangerous job versus no job at all. How should companies and regulators put a dollar value on workers’ quality of life — indeed, on their very lives?

To date, Royale has paid nearly a half-million dollars — in court settlements, required upgrades and less than $20,000 in OSHA fines related to glue fumes. Those costs — and the harm to workers — accumulated in slow motion. Cushion making is a boom-bust business, subject to the swings of big orders from furniture companies. Royale and others in the industry frequently use transient, nonunion and illegal immigrant laborers, according to workers and court documents, who are less likely to report hazards and document symptoms.

This is long-form journalism at it’s best. It covers the people, the company, the industry and the government agency and regulations that shape it. The business media often overlooks those profiled in the story when they’re covering companies. The piece is an excellent example of work that many organizations can no longer undertake.

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