This is the first in a series of planned commentaries on protecting workers from toxic chemicals.
February started with news that’s all too familiar in the United States: An incident involving highly toxic industrial chemicals sparked a large fire, threatening an explosion, forcing evacuations, and putting workers and community members directly in harm’s way. In this case, the danger came from a derailed train in Ohio that was hauling cancer-causing vinyl chloride, used to make certain types of plastic; toxic phosgene, an industrial chemical that was also used as a chemical weapon in World War I; and other substances.
This chemical disaster posed a threat to rail workers, first responders, and community members, and after a controlled burn to prevent an explosion, reported fish kills, and the discovery of additional toxic chemicals in some of the train cars, lingering questions remain about the long-term hazards facing community residents. It’s one of many high-profile fires, spills, leaks, explosions, and other industrial incidents to have made the news over the years. But extreme, acute threats like the Ohio derailment aren’t the only toxic chemical dangers facing workers and surrounding communities.
Many chronic, lower-level exposures happen in workplaces every day, posing significant but far more hidden risks to workers, their families, and their communities. Toxic exposures in industrial facilities and other settings can cause a range of health problems. These include nervous system effects like headaches, dizziness, confusion, and memory loss; cancer; breathing problems including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and asthma attacks; skin irritation and rashes; and reproductive and developmental effects such as infertility, birth defects, and other health problems.
Neither extreme, short-term hazards nor longer-term exposures are evenly distributed across the country. States with high concentrations of chemical plants, such as Texas, Louisiana, and Ohio, have the largest number of workers affected by toxic chemicals. In other states, including Virginia, workers are exposed to toxic chemicals in a variety of industries, including chemical plants, refineries, and other industrial facilities. The Delaware River Basin in Pennsylvania is also home to facilities like these.
These states also have a higher incidence of cancer and other health problems related to chemical exposures, and such harms often impact overburdened and historically marginalized communities to a greater extent than other, more affluent cities, towns, and counties. Over the next couple of years, we’ll be digging into these issues and seeing how they impact workers and overburdened communities at industrial facilities in Pennsylvania and the Delaware River basin.
But how do risky chemical exposures happen and lead to these problems? Many industrial facilities produce and use a wide range of substances, and facility workers are often directly exposed to toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process. As the Ohio train derailment made all too clear, such exposures can also happen during catastrophic industrial and infrastructure failures and when transporting toxic chemicals.
Additionally, many industrial facility workers are not adequately trained or equipped to handle dangerous chemicals safely, and many don’t have access to proper protective gear. This increases their risk of exposure and the potential for health problems. The communities surrounding these chemical facilities are also at risk, as toxic chemicals can be released into the air and water, contaminating the environment and posing a threat to public health.
Ongoing chemical exposures in industrial facilities, other workplaces, and surrounding communities cry out for stronger regulations and enforcement of safety standards, as well as increased funding for research on the health impacts of toxic chemical exposure.
At the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards for workplace safety, including exposure to toxic chemicals. However, most of these standards are too weak to protect workers, and enforcement could and should be much stronger. In addition, California officials have pushed for a national registry of chemicals and their potential health effects, as well as mandatory reporting of chemical releases, modeled on the state’s similar law.
At the state level, efforts to enhance enforcement and penalties should be implemented to ensure that employers are meeting their obligations to protect workers from toxic chemical exposures. Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other states should enhance enforcement and penalties for non-compliance. This could involve strengthening penalties for employers who violate exposure limits or creating a whistleblower protection program to encourage workers to report hazardous conditions in the workplace.
Protecting workers from toxic chemical exposure in industrial facilities is a crucial issue that demands attention and action. By implementing stronger regulations and enforcement of safety standards, as well as investing in research and education, we can better protect the health and well-being of workers and their communities.