New Congress on Track to Block Long-Sought Workplace and Public Health Protections

By:  Elizabeth Grossman

An estimated 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-caused diseases each year, a figure that’s considered conservative. Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States but it still exists in products here, perpetuating exposure, especially for workers in construction and other heavy industries. In June 2016, after years of debate, the country’s major chemical regulation law was updated for the first time in 40 years, removing a major obstacle to banning asbestos.

Exposure to beryllium, a metal used in aerospace, defense, and communications industry manufacturing, to which about 62,000 U.S. workers are exposed annually, can cause a severe, chronic lung disease. On January 6, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a rule—more than 15 years in the making—that dramatically lowers allowable workplace exposure to beryllium. OSHA says this will prevent 94 premature deaths and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease per year.

On April 17, 2013, an explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured hundreds. In late December—after a four-year process involving public, business, governments and non-profit input—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule designed to prevent such accidents, improve community response to and preparedness for such disasters.

Those three examples are among the occupational and public health protective policies finalized by the Obama administration now jeopardized by antiregulatory legislation already passed by the 115th Congress. It remains to be seen if this legislation will become law and actually used. But, says University of Texas School of Law professor Thomas McGarity, the likely outcome is “that this will make people sick and unsafe.”

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