Temp workers organize for change in an industry rife with reported abuses: ‘They would treat people as disposable’
For eight years, Dora worked at a frozen pizza factory in Romeoville, Illinois, called Great Kitchens. For eight hours a day — sometimes seven days a week — she assembled pizza boxes or arranged cheese and other toppings on pizzas. The consequences of years of such repetitive work surfaced in October 2012, when her hands would go numb and a painful cyst formed on her left wrist. She told her supervisor about the problem, but he said he couldn’t do anything about it — Dora was a temporary worker hired through a staffing agency and so Great Kitchens wasn’t responsible for addressing her injury.
“I went to the temp agency and they told me to just put a bandage around it and use ice and they would send me to work the next day,” said Dora, 36, who asked me not to use her last name. “It was seven months later that they sent me to a doctor because I couldn’t work anymore.”
Unfortunately, Dora’s experience has become a typical one among temporary workers, as more and more corporations outsource their hiring to temporary staffing agencies and effectively absolve themselves of the legal responsibility of ensuring safe and healthy workplaces that adhere to labor laws. In other words, Dora and other temporary workers are considered employees of the staffing agencies, not the factory or office in which they actually work. That means it’s the staffing agency that takes on the workers’ compensation liability, which weakens the incentive for the onsite supervisors to enforce health and safety standards.
It’s a problem that’s growing bigger and bigger as more major corporations — from Wal-Mart to Nike to Arizona Iced Tea — look to staffing agencies to take over key production operations. And as those staffing agencies race to underbid each other and compete for lucrative contracts, it’s the workers who ultimately suffer. In a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “Temped Out: How the Domestic Outsourcing of Blue-Collar Jobs Harms America’s Workers,” authors Rebecca Smith and Claire McKenna write:
Our country is in the midst of a seismic change in how businesses organize the way that work central to their success is carried out. It’s a change that can have dire consequences for workers. In recent decades, major employers across the economy have restructured, franchising their businesses, outsourcing, and using staffing agencies to take over core operations. While these practices sometimes may yield greater efficiencies, too often they reflect explicit employer strategies to evade labor laws and worker benefits. And even when not implemented with such intentions, the effect can be the same, as “lead” companies for which workers are producing goods or providing services disclaim any employment relationship with them. Thus, at the same time that major corporations continue to closely direct the provision of their services and the manufacture of their products, they attempt to shed responsibility for compliance with core labor standards.
According to the report, which was released earlier this month, temporary work has reached an all-time high in the U.S., with 2.8 million Americans employed in temporary help services. In addition, temporary work is moving from the office to the factory, with production and material moving jobs making up 42 percent of temporary staffing jobs in 2013, and office and administrative jobs making up just 21 percent. Within this growing business model, injured workers or those who’ve experienced wage violations are left navigating a confusing maze to determine who’s responsible.
When Dora’s temporary employer, Staffing Network, finally sent her to a doctor, she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and told she had to undergo multiple surgeries to correct the damage in her hand, wrist and elbow. But Staffing Network refused to cover all the care her doctor recommended. So with the help of a local worker advocate organization, the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, Dora sued the temp agency. (The lawsuit is still in progress and is now against Great Kitchens after Staffing Network’s workers’ comp provider went bankrupt.)
“Honestly, this has really affected me a lot because I am a single mother, I have three children…so to even make them food, to wash them, to give them the attention they need is very difficult (because of the injury),” Dora told me. “It makes me feel helpless.”
However, Dora’s experience compelled her to become an advocate for other workers, and today she is a health and safety promoter with the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative.
“I don’t think it is just that they abuse us because we don’t know our rights,” she said. “They think that because some of us might be undocumented that we don’t have any rights to anything. It’s what compelled me to learn about my rights and how to help one’s self and to help others who need it. …I think it’s really important that people know that we don’t need to be afraid, that we need to speak up.”
Temporary workers join forces to fight workplace abuses
According to the NELP report, staffing agencies often hire the most vulnerable workers, with Hispanic and African-American workers comprising about 40 percent of the staffing industry. Also, temporary workers tend to report higher work-related injury rates than workers in more traditional employment arrangements, experience a higher incidence of retaliation for speaking up and are paid less on average. NELP reports that the median staffing agency worker earns about 22 percent less than other workers. To top it off, staffing agency workers are excluded from the bargaining and organizing rights authorized via the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NELP report states:
Staffing workers face a perfect storm of health and safety risks. They work in some of the most dangerous jobs in our economy. According to OSHA, temporary workers often receive insufficient safety training and are more vulnerable to retaliation for reporting injuries than workers in traditional employment relationships. … A ProPublica analysis of worker’s compensation claims in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon found that the incidence of temporary worker workplace injuries was between 36 to 72 percent higher than for non-temporary workers. Perceived job insecurity can also have negative physical and mental health consequences, so that temporary workers may experience increased levels of depression and anxiety because of their contingent status.
Rebecca Smith, a co-author of the report and NELP’s deputy director, told me that third-party employment is becoming a permanent feature of many business plans and is expected to be one of the fastest growing sectors of the next decade.
“From a worker’s perspective, it creates confusion over who’s the boss and over who’s supposed to train you and provide health and safety equipment,” she said. “It can prove fatal for some workers.”
Smith said that today’s labor laws, such as the NLRA, are not equipped to “deal with this fracturing of the employment relationship.” However, the tide may be slowly changing. OSHA is increasing its focus on temporary workers and is working with staffing agencies to make sure they’re aware of their legal obligations. According to the NELP report, OSHA is ramping up its temp worker-related data collection and enforcement activities through its Temporary Worker Initiative. (On the OSHA site, agency administrator David Michaels is quoted as saying: “Host employers need to treat temporary workers as they treat existing employees. Temporary staffing agencies and host employers share control over the employee, and are therefore jointly responsible for temp employee’s safety and health. It is essential that both employers comply with all relevant OSHA requirements.”)
State policy-makers are also stepping up. For example in August, California lawmakers passed a law that would hold companies legally responsible if temp agencies or subcontractors violate workers’ rights. And across the country, staffing workers are coming together to fight for better working conditions — the NELP report highlights successful campaigns in Chicago, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“We need to ensure that the companies at the top are taking responsibility for the workers at the bottom,” Smith said. “We need to enforce existing laws, we need to change the laws and we need to ensure that workers can come together.”
Fortunately, temporary workers aren’t waiting for the law to catch up with the realities of modern work. In Illinois, despite their exemption from the organizing rights given under the NLRA, temporary workers have come together to create the Staffing Workers Organizing Committee, an association that can collectively put pressure on employers to improve workplace conditions. The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative supports the committee, providing health and safety education to committee members and helping them arrange meetings and inspections with local OSHA staff. For example, just this summer, the collaborative helped workers identify 40 dangerous worksites and is now turning the evidence over to OSHA, said Tim Bell, the collaborative’s organizing director and coordinator of the temp worker health and safety program.
“Before this whole industry was operating in the shadows,” Bell told me. “And now they’re going to have to clean up their act. …If (this employment model) is profitable in one sector, there’s going to be companies that want to use it to maximize profits in their sectors as well. Even if you’re not morally outraged by this, it could affect you one day.”
Bell said temporary workers often work in dangerous jobs and receive little training and inadequate protective equipment. The majority of injuries he sees among temp workers are repetitive motion injuries, which can “destroy the productivity of that worker and so they’re not employable again and end up being essentially disabled,” he said. (Unfortunately, OSHA has no authority to enforce ergonomic standards.) Bell noted that traditionally, many temporary jobs may have eventually turned into permanent positions directly with the host company, but that’s not happening today. In the Chicago area, he said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a direct-hire job in a factory or warehouse.
“This is a system that’s pushing health and safety standards to the bottom,” Bell told me. “The idea is to push the liability back on the host employer — that’s where the leverage lies.”
Former Staffing Network employee and Great Kitchens worker Marcela hopes she can help make that happen. Marcela, 32 and who asked I only use her first name, was a temporary worker at Great Kitchens for 18 months, assembling frozen pizza boxes for companies such as Wal-Mart, 7-11 and Costco. Between Marcela and about six to eight co-workers, they’d assemble about 80 boxes per minute. They couldn’t slow down or the pizzas would pile up.
After doing the work for six months, Marcela told me her hands would fall asleep at night, she began experiencing pain in her hands and arms, and a cyst formed on her right wrist. She told her supervisor at the factory about the pain and they sent her back to Staffing Network, which told her to put ice on her wrist and wrap it in a bandage. Between November 2012 and May 2013, Marcela treated her injury with ice and a bandage, watching the cyst grow bigger and bigger.
Finally, the pain was too much and Staffing Network sent her to their doctor, who recommended surgery for carpal tunnel. After the surgery, Staffing Network sent Marcela back to work just days later even though she had just one working arm. Both Marcela and Dora filed complaints with OSHA and requested OSHA injury logs from Staffing Network and Great Kitchens. The logs revealed that Great Kitchens was home to dozens of work injuries over the previous 18 months; Staffing Network never provided a log. Marcela also filed a lawsuit against Staffing Network, which is when she said she began experiencing significant workplace retaliation.
Like Dora, Marcela became a health and safety promoter with the collaborative and said that she believes “change is possible.”
“I got really angry at knowing and realizing that it didn’t matter…that they would treat people as disposable,” she said. “To hear (workers) cry in the bathroom and in the lunchroom, complaining about the pain they feel in their hands and wrists and knowing that it’s because they’re afraid that they can’t speak up. …(Change) is difficult, but it’s possible, even if it’s just one person that speaks up.”
To learn more about the issues facing temporary workers, download the full NELP report and read this investigative series on temp work from ProPublica. Recommended practices for protecting temp workers from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety can be downloaded here.
(Special thanks to Tim Bell for arranging the interviews with Marcela and Dora and to Irene Romulo for providing translation during the interviews.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
As we’ve written before, the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations contributes to the global problem of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. So I was delighted to visit Maryn McKenna’s Superbug blog and read that Perdue Farms, the US’s third-largest chicken producer, has announced that it has stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention, and is no longer using antibiotics important for human medicine in 95% of its birds. (McKenna is always my favorite source for all things antibiotic-related; check out her antibiotics archive to learn more about this and related issues.)
According to Perdue, this dramatic reduction in antibiotic use has taken 12 years and careful planning about alternative strategies. McKenna reports:
To compensate for the lost effect of the antibiotics the company relinquished, [Perdue Senior Vice President of Food Safety, Quality and Live Operations Bruce] Stewart-Brown said they also improved chickens’ diets by removing animal byproducts and going to an all-vegetable feed of soybean meal and corn oil; using prebiotics and probiotics including “oregano and yucca” and “yogurt type things”; increasing the number of vaccinations chickens receive; and doubling down on cleaning chicken “houses,” the long sheds that can hold tens of thousands of broilers at a time.
This is a good reminder that the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) model is dysfunctional in many ways. Unhealthy diets and poultry houses that don’t get cleaned often enough to avoid waste buildup may lead to cheaper chicken prices, but they also help create conditions in which disease can flourish. Antibiotics are often both a means of speeding animals’ growth and a natural response to disease-prone (or disease-ridden) flocks. As my George Washington University colleague Lance Price said in a recent TEDx talk, “The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern CAFO.”
I hope that Perdue’s announcement will inspire other poultry producers to follow suit. And I hope the company’s commitment to figuring out how to change their procedures for the good of public health extends to assuring that poultry-processing workers are able to do their jobs without developing carpal tunnel syndrome or other disorders for which poultry workers are at high risk. (For more on this topic, see our Poultry Plants category.)
The public health community is mourning the loss of Andrea Kidd-Taylor, DrPH, MSPH, 59, who died on September 1 from cancer. Celebrations of her life were held on September 8-9 in Randallstown, MD.
I first met Andrea Kidd-Taylor in 1994 when she was a member of OSHA’s 12-person National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH). With her masters and doctoral degrees in public health, and her training as an industrial hygienist, Andrea held the NACOSH slot designated for an occupational health expert. At the time, she was with the Health and Safety Department of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and living in Detroit. I was working at OSHA but had never previously attended a NACOSH meeting.
I remember my first encounter with Andrea as if it were yesterday. She lit up the drab government conference room with her bright eyes and warm smile. The committee was discussing OSHA’s hazard communication standard. Specifically the adequacy and understandability of the information available to workers about the chemical hazards they encounter in their jobs. Andrea pressed the discussion to focus on the paucity of information for workers—both women and men—-on reproductive system effects. It was a topic that received too little attention by government agencies, manufacturers and users, but, she explained, was a topic of significant concern to workers.
During a break, I mustered up the confidence to introduce myself to her. (It was early in my OHS career, and I felt out of place approaching individuals I considered above my status.) With a “Detroit is my hometown” lead, I put out my hand for a shake from Andrea. Her sincerity was overwhelming. She made me feel like our brief conversation was the most important one she would have all day. That was just one of Andrea’s many beautiful traits. Colleagues are sharing many others.
“My first contact with Dr. Taylor was in 2006 at Howard University, Washington, DC. She was an environmental public health guest lecturer at the University’s College of Medicine-operated public health program. In her presentation, she depicted every ounce of a true bastion of public health and environmental activism. At the end of the class, a throng of students lined up to have a chat with her—and I was once of them.”
“For every student that came, she had the same level as mine: an engagement, and presence that was neither rushed, nor frizzled. This was late in the night. This is significant given the fact that she was in Washington, DC and would be commuting to Baltimore, Maryland the same night—a commute that was very long. She made a personal connection with each of the students that she met that night.”
Her outreach to students and colleagues in academia went well beyond the Washington, DC/Baltimore region.
“We have lost a real leader, inspiration, spokesperson for social justice and the well-being of working people, and an extraordinarily kind heart,” remembered Margaret M. Quinn, ScD, CIH, professor in the Department of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“Andrea was an advisor to and/or collaborator with just about everyone in our OHS community and beyond. She served in this role in several capacities for our department. We will work with renewed commitment to carry out her vision.” Quinn added, “Tomorrow is the first day of our graduate course in Occupational Health and Safety Policy and we will dedicate the class to her so that new students will know about and continue her work.”
My first encounter with Andrea Kidd-Taylor at that NACOSH meeting is when I learned about the American Public Health Association (APHA) and its important role in advocating for worker health and safety. She was chair of the OHS Section in 1994. She invited and urged me to join the organization, which I did a year or two later.
Andrea’s leadership in APHA continued to grow and she was ultimately elected to the 25,000-member association’s executive board in 2008 for a four-year term. That was another amazing thing about Andrea. She had a full-time job, most recently as a lecturer in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Morgan State University, but she also accepted many invitations to serve (volunteer) on boards, committees and working groups. Besides her service to NACOSH and APHA, others included: the National Coalition against the Misuse of Pesticides, Maryland Pesticide Reporting and Information working group, a presidential advisory committee examining illnesses among Gulf War veterans, and as a working group chair for the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures.
Andrea was appointed by President Clinton in 1998 to the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on which she served a five-year term. Current CSB chair Rafael Moure-Eraso said her tenure was:
“marked by compassion for workers and deep concern for their well being on the job. …She was not only passionate about her work, but empathetic to those who suffered from tragedies on the job. For instance, she deployed with an investigation team to Kinston, North Carolina, following a massive explosion at West Pharmaceutical Services Company on January 29, 2003. The dust explosion destroyed the plant and caused six deaths, dozens of injuries, and hundreds of job losses. Dr. Kidd Taylor insisted on meeting as many surviving but shaken workers as possible to assure them her agency would find out what happened.”
Andrea’s genuine concern for the hazards faced by workers was influenced by her grandfather’s experience working in a foundry in Bessemer, Alabama. In a 1997 talk at the conference “Healthy and Sustainable Communities: Building Model Partnerships for the 21st Century,” she described how her “Papa” would come home from work covered in thick dust from the foundry. He had labored breezing, wheezed, and used an inhalant for relief. He died in 1978 at age 69 from a massive asthma and heart attack, she explained.
“His death haunts me because I know that he and many other workers in this plant (the workforce was predominantly black) did not live to enjoy their retirements.”
For Andrea Kidd-Taylor, public health and social justice went hand-in-hand. And with Andrea, it was never just talk. Pamela Vossenas, MPH, Workplace Safety and Health Coordinator for UNITE HERE, recalled one of her fondest memories of Andrea:
“It was the very last day of the [exhausting] APHA conference at an 8:00 am session. A UNITE HERE Washington, DC hotel housekeeper and I were on a panel to discuss recent contract wins and hotel room cleaning workloads. Sure enough, who was there bright and early to greet us, well, let’s be honest — to greet the housekeeper, but Andrea and Linda Rae Murray.I loved the support they showed to having the housekeeper—our union sister—on the panel.”
“Most recently, she helped out some cafeteria workers with an organizing campaign UNITE HERE had going on in Baltimore,” Vossenas added. “Hard to believe that our dear Andrea, a true, mighty and beautiful force of nature is no longer with us on earth. She was an inspiration to us all.”
Andrea’s public health expertise, and her training as an industrial hygienist was in demand and highly valued. So was her singing voice. Andrea had an amazing musical talent—the kind of signing voice that would send chills up your spin or get your hands clapping to the beat. Whether a Motown favorite, a Spiritual, or a labor protest song, if you heard Andrea’s a capella instrument, you’d never forget it. She was a member of the singing group Rafiki Na Dada which means Friends and Sisters in the Swahili language.
Elise Pechter, MPH, CIH with the Massachusetts Department of Health made me smile when she said:
“I am so saddened to learn about Andrea’s passing. I was always delighted that an industrial hygienist could dance and sing—giving lie to the idea that we were all nerds.”
“I had the joy of working with Andrea for many years at UAW,” remembered LaborSafe’s Peter Dooley, CSP, CIH.
“One vivid memory was spending several weeks with our sister union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, singing, dancing and learning.” He added, “Andrea helped celebrate my wedding almost twenty years ago by singing “We shall Overcome” with her mother. Many treasured moments and memories. Andrea will be sadly missed.”
Andrea Kidd-Taylor received her doctorate of public health degree (DrPH) in 1989 from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, her masters of science in public health (MSPH) in 1982 from the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and a bachelors of science degree in 1976 from Howard University. She was a 40-year member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha service sorority and a devoted member of Union Bethel AME Church and its sanctuary choir. She is survived by her husband Dr. Jimmy Taylor, and her children Shomari and Tahira.
He life and contribution to worker health and safety will surely be celebrated at APHA’s annual meeting in November.
Across the country, roughly 10 million construction workers spend each day in a dangerous and fickle industry. They hang drywall, lay carpet, shingle roofs. Yet in the eyes of their bosses, they aren’t employees due the benefits the government requires.
That’s the intro to an extensive series of articles that McClatchy DC recently published called “Contract to Cheat,” which chronicles a year-long investigation into the consequences of misclassifying workers as independent contractors and how government regulators are doing nothing to stop it. The in-depth series offers investigations from seven states — California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas — and chronicles how the 2009 federal stimulus package was “riddled with a massive labor scheme that mistreated thousands of vulnerable workers and cheated unsuspecting U.S. taxpayers.” In one of the series’ articles, reporters Mandy Locke and Franco Ordoñez write:
A review of public records in 28 states uncovered widespread cheating by construction companies that listed workers as contractors instead of employees in order to beat competitors and cut costs. The federal government, while cracking down on the practice in private industry, let it happen in stimulus projects in the rush to pump money into the economy at a time of crisis.
Companies across the country avoided state and federal taxes and undercut law-abiding competitors. They exploited workers desperate for jobs, depriving them of unemployment benefits and often workers’ compensation insurance.
Exactly how much tax revenue was forfeited on stimulus projects isn’t clear. This is: The government enabled businesses bent on breaking the rules. Regulators squandered the chance to right a rogue industry by forcing companies’ hands on government jobs.
In an accompanying article examining the experience of immigrant workers, Locke and Ordoñez found that in southern states, as many as a third of construction workers are misclassified as independent contractors, with immigrants being the most susceptible. In interviewing hundreds of workers, the reporters found numerous instances of mistreatment, including stories of workers having to pay a fee to use protective gear such as hard hats and steel-toe boots. Among the stories they collected:
“It makes me feel invisible,” said Camilo Loyola, a Mexican immigrant who moved to North Carolina more than 20 years ago. During two decades in the construction industry, Loyola has been shortchanged on wages and deprived of tax forms, he said. In 2011, he worked on a government-financed project in Raleigh and was improperly treated as an independent contractor. He knew it was wrong, but he needed to keep the money flowing for his family.
Armando Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, helped build an affordable housing complex in Jacksonville, N.C., in 2010. He said he was treated as an independent contractor and shortchanged on the hours he worked. “These days, you work for less or you don’t work at all,” he said.
Samuel Mora worked with a crew his father assembled at an affordable housing complex in Fayetteville, N.C. Sometimes, he said, it took weeks or a month for his father to be paid and then to distribute cash to his workers. No one bothered to define what they were, but records show Samuel Mora was treated as an independent contractor. He was resigned to the realities of working in construction in America.
However, the series also highlighted efforts to stop misclassification. Reporters Mike Fitzgerald and Ryann Grochowski Jones wrote about actions in Illinois and New York to curb such labor law violations. They found that:
While North Carolina and other Southern states have misclassification rates on publicly financed projects approaching nearly 40 percent, the reporters in Illinois and New York combed through payroll records for dozens of projects and found not one instance of a company wrongly listing its employees as independent contractors.
It’s no accident. Illinois and New York have passed hard-nosed laws and formed task forces to take an aggressive tack toward employers who misclassify their workers.
Read the entire “Contract to Cheat” series here.
In other news:
The Sacramento Bee: California lawmakers recently passed legislation that would give workers three paid sick days a year, however the run-up to the vote splintered supporters. Reporter Christopher Cadelago writes that the bill lost the support of major unions, including Service Employees International Union, after it was revised to exempt home health care workers from receiving the benefit. In responding to the revision, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, told Cadelago: “This is B.S. …This is yet another example where a female-dominated industry, that has taken disproportionate hits during the state’s fiscal crisis is once again being, quite frankly, disrespected.”
NIOSH Science Blog: CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health celebrated N95 Day last week with a theme of “Respiratory Preparedness: Where Technology Meets Good Practices.” In the blog post, author Jaclyn Krah explains the theme: “It’s what we do as the nation’s personal protection equipment research, surveillance, standards development, and certification laboratory joining together with what you do in your workplace in order to build a safe working environment and culture.” The blog links to a number of useful resources, such as video explainers on respirator certification and what it means to be NIOSH-approved.
In These Times: Union activists staged a sit-in at an Apple store in San Francisco to protest the use of non-union subcontractors in hiring security guards. Reporter Julia Wong writes that the demonstration, which was organized by United Service Workers West, called on Apple to “use responsible contractors who allow workers to have a voice on the job.” The article cites previous report findings that a majority of security guards in Santa Clara (also known as Silicon Valley) aren’t benefiting from the tech industry boom and most don’t even receive paid sick leave. Wong quotes the Working Partnerships report: “If tech companies are serious about building a pipeline from K-12 schools for a more diverse tech workforce it starts with paying their parents a livable wage.”
Huffington Post: Last week, fast food workers around the nation went on strike to call for a living wage. Writer Jillian Berman reports that about 500 people were arrested during the demonstrations in communities from New York City to Kansas City to San Diego. However, the fast food strikes didn’t only happen in the nation’s metropolitan communities. For example, Berman writes that in Charleston, S.C., “the fact that it was happening at all in South Carolina took onlookers by surprise. The state has the third-lowest union density in the nation, with little of the organized labor infrastructure that often helps lead a wage protest.” In a related commentary, economist Paul Krugman knocks down arguments that raising the minimum wage will force companies to lay off workers in this video posted at Business Insider.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
What you don’t know could hurt you: Petition asks EPA to limit duration of chemical trade secret claims
It may come as a surprise to those not familiar with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – the primary law that regulates chemicals used in the US that go into products other than cosmetics, drugs and pesticides – to learn that about 15,000 chemicals on the TSCA inventory have their identities claimed as trade secrets. According to an analysis included in the petition filed with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on August 21st by Earthjustice and five other non-profits, approximately 62.5 percent of the 24,000 chemicals added to the TSCA inventory since 1982 cannot be “meaningfully identified by the public” because their names are claimed as confidential business information. This masking of chemical identities can often hamper public access to health and safety information about these substances and make it hard for those working with such chemicals to fully understand what they may be exposed to.
TSCA requires the EPA to maintain an inventory of chemicals used and manufactured in the US and requires manufacturers and importers of new chemicals to submit health and safety data to the EPA as part of new chemical registration. However TSCA, also allows chemical identities to be claimed as trade secrets if revealing that information would – in the opinion of the manufacturer – jeopardize confidential manufacturing processes or formulas.
What Earthjustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, Breast Cancer Fund, BlueGreen Alliance, New Jersey Work Environment Council and Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice are asking, is that EPA put a time limit on TSCA confidential business information (CBI) claims. The petition asks that EPA set a five-year limit on these claims and have them expire at the end of this period unless the company registering the chemical can prove to the EPA that continued trade secret protection is warranted.
“EPA has the authority to do this under current TSCA,” explains Environmental Defense Fund senior scientist Richard Denison. “This is not a novel idea,” says Denison, noting that the EPA’s Inspector General has made such a suggestions previously, most recently in 2010. The petition outlines the history of attempts to limit the duration of TSCA trade secret claims, efforts that now date back more than 20 years.
Chemical identities in TSCA environment, health and safety data
TSCA requires chemical manufacturers to notify the EPA if information shows that a chemical “presents a substantial risk of injury to health or to the environment.” But what’s often happened historically, is that when – as part of the TSCA oversight process – health and safety studies are posted on the EPA’s website, chemical names have been withheld in these documents if these chemicals’ identities have been claimed as trade secrets as part of their TSCA registration. As the petition notes, these CBI claims under TSCA can impede worker and community right-to-know about potential chemical exposures. They can also impede both government regulation and voluntary industrial chemical stewardship programs. It also points out that this information is essential for effective monitoring of both worker exposures and employer safety procedures involving chemicals.
“We can’t test for it if we don’t know what it is,” says Breast Cancer Fund senior policy strategist Nancy Buermeyer.
If a chemical’s identity is not known, it is very difficult, if not impossible to monitor exposure either in the environment – indoors or out – or though biomonitoring, says Buermeyer. And when it comes to understanding human health effects, it is such exposure data “that drives research,” she explains. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), for example, now conducts biomonitoring tests for the presence of about 250 industrial chemicals or their breakdown products. That many of these exposures have been discovered to be widespread has prompted investigation of how these chemicals’ presence in the human body may be affecting health.
The petition also points out that TSCA CBI claims have included chemicals known to cause cancer in humans. It singles out the example of benzidine, a dye ingredient that “can cause bladder cancer” whose TSCA registration had data claimed as CBI.
In 2010, in a policy intended to increase transparency of chemical information under TSCA, the EPA began reviewing more than 22,000 TSCA confidential business information claims and asking companies to voluntarily declassify chemicals in TSCA health and safety data. Since 2010, the EPA’s policy has also been to deny CBI claims for chemical identities in TSCA health and safety studies. “Since 2011, many companies have risen to the challenge resulting in nearly 1000 documents with formerly confidential chemical identities being made public,” writes the EPA. This policy requires companies registering chemicals under TSCA to provide more justification for confidential business information claims than they had to previously but it does not change the fact that these trade secret claims can last forever.
The EPA is also now posting to its publically accessible databases, chemical health and safety information made available through this declassification effort. But connecting these documents with actual products in which these chemicals are used is challenging given that trade names may differ from chemical registration names and lack of full ingredient listing on commercial products. Earthjustice managing attorney, Marianne Engelman Lado offers the example of the oil dispersant chemicals used in response to the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster as products for which CBI claims made under TSCA delayed access to information about potential response worker and other human exposure effects.
Chemical exposures and worker health
Pinpointing precise cause and effect between chemical exposure and work-related illness will always be challenging. No one – in the workplace or elsewhere – is exposed to only one chemical and most chemicals can affect the human body in multiple ways. Some chemical exposures produce immediate adverse effects but some prompt health effects that – like many cancers, reproductive or hormonally-related illnesses – take years to become apparent. But understanding the relationship between chemical exposure and work-related illness is made even more difficult if chemicals are not fully identified.
Efforts are being made through TSCA and through other policies both in the US and internationally to bolster the hazard information available to those working with chemicals. But the reality remains that workers often have only partial knowledge about the chemicals they’re working with.
Work-related diseases associated with chemical exposures are a serious and ongoing problem. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), approximately 2.02 million people die each year worldwide from work-related diseases and 160 million are diagnosed with non-fatal work-related illnesses. The ILO estimates that exposure to chemicals is responsible for about 400,000 work-related deaths each year and that such exposures are also responsible for 35 million work-related diseases recorded worldwide.
In the US, researchers estimate that more than 60,000 workers die each year from occupational diseases while more than 850,000 develop new work-related illnesses. They also estimate that 10,000 to 20,000 US workers die annually from cancer related to occupational chemical exposures. Also not included in either US or global statistics are health effects to children and grandchildren resulting from their parents’ and other family members’ workplace chemical exposures.
Releasing more confidential business information claimed under TSCA will clearly not solve all these problems. But says Richard Denison, “More information in the public domain leads to better decision making.” And perhaps more information about chemicals present in the workplace would lead to safer work environments.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Forget pink or blue. It turns out that the best color for baby may be green.
In a study recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that mothers living in neighborhoods with plenty of greenness — grass, trees and other types of lush vegetation — were more likely to carry their pregnancies to full term and deliver babies at healthier weights. Specifically, the study found that very pre-term births were 20 percent lower and moderate pre-term births were 13 percent lower among mothers living in greener neighborhoods. Also, babies from greener neighborhoods were less likely to be classified as “small” for their gestational age than babies in less green neighborhoods. And the association between greenness and better birth outcomes stood up even after researchers adjusted for factors such as income, noise, neighborhood walkability and poor air quality.
“This was a surprise,” said study lead author Perry Hystad, an environmental epidemiologist in Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Services, in a news release. “We expected the association between greenness and birth outcomes to disappear once we accounted for other environmental exposures such as air pollution and noise. The research really suggests that greenness affects birth outcomes in other ways, such as psychologically or socially.”
To conduct the study, researchers used satellite-derived data on vegetation and compared it with birth outcomes among 64,705 births in Vancouver, British Columbia. They noted in the study that with half of the world’s population living in urban areas — and with that number expected to grow — it’s important to understand the characteristics of urban environments that contribute to positive health outcomes. They found that birthweight was 20.6 grams higher on average with each 0.1 increase in greenness, with babies in the greenest neighborhoods weighing 45 grams more at birth than infants with moms living in the least green neighborhoods. In the news release, Hystad noted that even though the birthweight differences seem small on an individual basis, “those are substantial differences that would have a significant impact on the health of infants in a community.”
Why is this important? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, low birthweight is the “single most important factor” in newborn mortality and those babies who do survive can experience serious, long-term health problems. Overall, the study concluded that living within 100 meters of increased greenness was linked to healthier birthweights and a lower likelihood of preterm birth. Study authors Hystad, Hugh Davies, Lawrence Frank, Josh Van Loon, Ulrike Gehring, Lillian Tamburic and Michael Brauer write:
The fact that residential greenness exposure remained associated with birth outcomes after adjusting for a number of hypothesized environmental exposures suggests that alternative pathways may link greenness exposure to birth outcomes. Two well-hypothesized pathways that were not examined in this study include psychosocial and psychological influences. Greenness may facilitate positive psychosocial influences by providing shared spaces for interactions. For example, exposure to greenness has been associated with social support and increased social ties and community belonging. …While we were unable to examine these pathways, our findings of a persistent greenness association with birth outcomes that was independent of previously observed associations with noise and air pollution suggests more research is required that includes all potential pathways potentially linking greenness to birth outcomes.
The study authors noted that it’s unclear just how much green space and what type of greenery is of greatest benefit to newborns, but they did say that one or two potted plants won’t make a difference. And that’s the next step for researchers — examining exactly why greenness seems to make a difference and determining how much greenness it takes to impact newborn health. The answer could lead to one of the more low-cost and enjoyable ways to promote child health — planting more trees.
“We know that green space is good,” Hystad said. “How do we maximize that benefit to improve health outcomes? The answer could have significant implications for land use planning and development.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.