Industrial Health and the Chemical Worker

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Industrial Health and the Chemical Worker

by Dave Kotelchuk

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 3, May 1972, p. 10 – 14 & 26 – 27

When reaching for a fresh bottle of chemicals on the laboratory shelf, how often do we as chemists think about how the chemicals got there? Who actually made the chemicals? Who put them in the bottle? When we open the bottle and place it under a ventilating hood to avoid breathing the fumes, do we ever ask ourselves who put the chemical in the bottle in the first place? Did they do it safely, under conditions of good ventilation?

When we use a radioactive isotope or radioactive metals in our studies, how often do we as scientists and engineers think about those who made the materials? Who mined the uranium? Who machined the metals? Who tested the radioisotopes for sterility? What effect did these activities have on their health?

When we use asbestos-based materials for insulation in our labs or in our homes, do we ever give thought to where the asbestos comes from? Who produces it? How?

And when we fight to cut down industrial pollution because of its adverse effect on people’s health, do we at the same time give thought to the dangers faced by the men and women working inside the plants, at the source of the pollution?

These are not questions we usually give much thought to. Our teachers didn’t talk much about them in school. Newspapers and magazines deal with matters considered of greater national and international importance. And there is little else in our background or culture that inclines us to these questions.

But to the millions of production workers in this country who make the enormous number of products that characterize and ultimately define our lives, these questions are of life and death importance. Let’s look at some facts about health and safety hazards in the workplace, published by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare:

Of 6000 men who have been uranium miners, an estimated 600 to 1100 will die during the next 20 years as a result of radiation exposure, principally from lung cancer.

Three and a half million American workers exposed to asbestos face a dual threat: not only are they subject to the lung-scarring pneumoconiosis of their trade, asbestosis, but they are endangered by lung cancer associated with inhalation of asbestos fibers. Recent studies of insulation workers in two states showed 1 in 5 deaths were from lung cancer, 7 times the expected rate; half of those with 20 years or more in the trade had X-ray evidence of asbestosis; 1 in 10 deaths were caused by mesothelioma, a rare malignancy of the lung or pleura which strikes only 1 in 10,000 in the general working population.

Among soft coal miners, the death rate from respiratory disease is five times that of the general working population.

These are some of the worst cases known of occupational disease. They are not, however, exceptional cases in an otherwise satisfactory situation. Rather, they are the tip of an iceberg whose dimensions and composition are even today little known. The National Safety Council estimates that each year;

***18,000 workers die in industrial accidents

***90,000 workers are permanently disabled

***2.2 million workers are injured sufficiently to miss work for more than one day

***25 million workers are injured sufficiently to miss work for one day.

Given the National Safety Council’s association with management, it should come as no surprise that even these large figures represent an underestimate of the accident and injury figures. (See box.)

If national accident and injury figures are understated, the incidence of occupational disease is difficult to estimate by any standards. However, based on statistics in California, where cases of occupational disease must be reported, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare estimates that over 336,000 cases of occupational disease develop each year among the 75 million employed U.S. civilians1. Clearly, if account were taken of long-term effects like lung disease and related heart stress, lung cancer, and the intensified effect of several environmental stresses working together, the true figure would be much larger.

Working people are acutely aware of health problems caused by their work. A U.S. Department of Labor survey conducted in 1969 by the University of Michigan Research Center shows that health and safety hazards rank second among problems faced by workers, based on a nationwide sample of the workforce2. According to the October, 1971 issue of Occupational Hazards, a management-oriented magazine, this lays to rest “the tired old myth that American workers aren’t vitally concerned with safety and health conditions of the workplace because of their near-total preoccupation with wages and fringe benefits.”

In addition to worker concern, radical professionals and other activists are beginning to show major interest in this area. Within the last year conferences on occupational health by interested medical and technical people have been held in New York, Chicago, and New Haven. The first national conference of the New American Movement (NAM), held in Davenport last November focussed on occupational health. The Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) has adopted occupational health and safety as a major national priority.

Why all this recent interest in occupational health and safety? Occupational diseases, after all, have been known for centuries, and workers’ struggles around health and safety have been taking place for many years. Among the immediate causes for the upsurge in interest are:

  1. The growing consciousness by workers of the dangers of long-term, sub-toxic exposures to industrial pollutants. This has, no doubt, been significantly influenced by recent public controversies about environmental hazards. If long-term exposure to relatively low levels of industrial pollutants presents health hazards to the general population, what is the effect on those who work at the very source of the pollution?
  2. Increased desire of the New Left to relate to workers. As a result of a variety of political experiences, radicals have become aware of the problems facing workers, not only low income, but economic insecurity and the oppressive, alienating conditions under which they work. Whenever they have focussed on these problems radicals have been struck by the large number of health and safety hazards in the workplace. Previously they had been no more aware of them than most people of similar middle-class background. For those with medical and technical training, awareness of occupational health problems has opened up another possibility for engaging in a science directed toward meeting the needs of the people of this society. It also allows for the development of relationships between workers and scientists based on shared needs.
  3. Passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970. This Act covers 55 million workers in 4.1 million plants throughout the country. It sets up revised standards for health and safety in these plants, and provides a system of federal inspectors to check on compliance with these standards. Workers can also file complaints of standards violations and bring about inspections of their plants. The effect of this law has been to raise hopes among workers that health and safety conditions will improve-especially in plants where unions have provided information about the law.

However, the law is so seriously deficient, so overwhelmingly biased in favor of management, that the extent of new protection it offers the workers is questionable. First, the standards are set by the Secretary of Labor, usually in consultation with management-oriented standards groups, based on a compromise between worker health and employer cost. Thus under this Act, the carbon monoxide level in plants has been set at a maximum value of 50 parts per million, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency sets its value at only 9 parts per million for the general population. Similarly, the maximum average noise level for an eight hour day is set at a compromise value of 90 decibels (labor wanted 85, and management 95), even though over a working life of 30 years this is known to cause nerve deafness in 16% of the people so exposed.

The maximum fine for a violation of these standards is only $1,000, with typical fines running much less. For example, the Mobil Refinery in Paulsboro, N.J. (see box) was fined a total of $7,400 after 90 violations were uncovered. Lest this cause hardship for companies, the fines are reduced by 50% when a company corrects the violation. On top of all this, the federal government has only budgeted funds for about 500 federal inspectors this year. Since the Act covers 4.1 million plants, that means each inspector must cover 8,200 plants. At one plant a day, seven days a week, the inspector will visit each plant once every 22 and a half years. Listing of inequities in the law could go on and on, but weak as it is, the expectations it arouses are real and may provide the impetus for worker action.

*     *     *

Given the increased interest in occupational health and safety, what have concerned scientists and medical people been doing in this area? What can they do?

In New York City, a course on occupational health and safety, sponsored by District 8 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) has provided a focus for activity. The OCAW approached SESPA members and other scientists last Spring for assistance in dealing with serious health hazards in chemical plants and oil refineries in the New York-New Jersey area. First, a conference was called in which over 50 scientists and workers explored the nature and dimensions of the health hazards. For those who had never been inside a chemical plant, the conference was an eye-opener. Workers told of working over open vats of organic solvents such as phenol (which is toxic and can be absorbed through the skin), with no protection, poor ventilation, and without being informed of the dangers of the chemicals. Women told of making insecticides using chemicals known to have harmful effects on humans, under conditions that left their bodies smelling of the chemicals long after working hours. The recurrent theme throughout the conference was the lack of information provided by the companies on the medical effects of the chemicals used and the lack of access by workers to medical information; in many cases workers using brand name products were not even told their compositions. In response to this, a group of the scientists formed the Scientists committee for Occupational Health (SCOH) with the aim of conducting a course on occupational health and safety especially designed to meet the needs of workers on the plant floor. (The few courses given in the recent past had always been for health professionals and/or union leaders.) Members of SCOH first read the existing literature to find out what was known technically and medically about these problems. Like most people trained in science or medicine today, we had no formal training in these subjects, nor had we even been made aware, for that matter, that these were problems. From this we put together a course manual in which we tried to translate the material we learned from technical jargon into everyday English. This was published by OCAW under the title “Industrial Hazards … A Workers’ Manual for Controlling the Work Environment.” It is available for $5 (to cover costs) from the OCAW, Citizenship-Legislative Department, 1126 16th St., N.W., Washington D.C, 20036.

The course itself was given one night a week for thirteen weeks at the Rutgers Labor Center during the fall term of 1971. Forty to sixty people from chemical plants and oil refineries in New jersey and as far away as Philadelphia and Long Island attended the course regularly. The course was an important learning experience for all, dramatically different from the usual college course in terms of the participation and interest of those attending. Due to the large number of chemical workers attending, the first half of the course was devoted to chemical hazards—gases, dust, solvents, plastics, metals, etc. The last half covered physical hazards (radiation, noise, welding, etc.), a short history of other labor struggles around health and safety (particularly the Black Lung fight in Kentucky and West Virginia), and a discussion of the Occupational Health and Safety Law of 1970.

The two-hour session usually began with a discussion of a particular organ or subsystem of the body and its defense mechanisms—for example, the respiratory system, liver, kidneys, skin, etc. We then discussed the effects and medical symptoms of exposure to one or more chemicals that subsystem. Finally, a major part of every session was spent training workers to use monitoring devices such as noise meters, air samplers, etc. We felt that such worker training was extremely important in two respects: First, there is no possibility of finding or training enough medical and technical people in the near future to study in detail the hazards at every plant. Second, we felt it crucial to give workers the tools with which they could control their own work lives, not to substitute a new set of experts—union scientists—for the old set—management scientists.

“To the lucky ones: We congratulate you on having survived the epidemic of job-connected disabilities which has plagued the Refinery during the ‘Two Million Manhours’ period. You must have been surprised to learn that two million man hours have passed without a lost time accident. You probably thought of all the accidents you have heard about had deprived us of what the Refinery Manager, in his letter calls an ‘outstanding record.’ But how naive we were! The Medical Department knows how to turn some accidents into ‘sicknesses’ or to declare an employee able to work, although his own doctor has advised him to rest at home. This is all part of the Company’s ‘no lost-time accident’ game. This is not a fun game. It’s a game which the Management almost never loses ……..

Even now, when the Company is boasting of it’s ‘safety record’ , there are employees with work connected disabilities: one has a fractured leg bone; another, a severely lacerated finger which required a skin graft; an employee who fell on the job and struck struck his head is now in the hospital (sick says the Medical Department, not an accident); another has a severe back injury which requires surgery; an employee has asbestosis; and two lab workers possible lead poisoning.”

Many technical and political issues were brought into sharp focus. For example, workers took noise meters into several plants after the session on noise. Workers who informed employers of their intentions beforehand found that management either consented at first and then quickly changed its mind, or flatly refused often threatening disciplinary action or firing as well. Those who did not inform management made measurements and reported back the results later. These reports provoked intense discussion on the method of approach, the response to management pressure, and what to do with the results. While some might view such scientific measurements as neutral events, in this context they illustrated the complexities of labor-management struggles. These include relationships among workers in the plant and between workers in different plants (if workers fight a certain hazard, can the company shift production to non-union plants?), the relationship of workers and the plant managers, the relative strength of labor as reflected in labor law, etc.

As a follow-up to the course, scientists and medical people have been working with people in various plants, helping to test, make medical evaluations and give technical advice. While this effort has been limited by the relatively small number of scientists and medical people available, and the slowly developing nature of struggles at the plants, it may offer ideas on how a relatively small group of concerned people can get involved in occupational health and safety.

Often, first contact with working people must be made through local unions. However, community organizing projects, labor union groups for peace, or rank-and-file groups within unions may provide useful contacts with workers concerned about occupational health and safety. After making contact and getting a general idea of problems within the plants, the first task facing most scientists and medical people is educating themselves (see reference list at end of article). Also, some people, perhaps lawyers or law students, may be helpful in learning about federal and state occupational health laws. Besides information from local, usually university, libraries, literature packets are available from the national office of the Medical Committee on Human Rights, 710 S. Marshfield, Chicago, Illinois 60612. Also, MCHR has been sponsoring a series of weekend conferences and mini-courses on occupational health throughout the country. Local people may be able to attend one nearby or offer one of their own. In many cities union groups will want to cosponsor these (e.g. UAW co-sponsored a Chicago conference with MCHR, and in New Haven, a local conference was cosponsored by the Central Labor Council). MCHR or New American Movement speakers may be available. To follow up, local people might begin doing tests or training workers to do them. Or they may wish to present a course on occupational health and safety, or do both. If sufficient medical resources are available, perhaps a local medical school, the group might explore setting up a clinic. If, as in many cases, little is known about health hazards of materials workers are handling, epidemiological studies may be needed. These can be based on union records, particularly where unions have their own welfare and retirement funds. This is time-consuming work, but very useful in finding if workers are subject to special diseases or, as more often occurs; are more susceptible to ordinarily occurring diseases such as lung cancer or various other types of cancer.

The scientist who is a worker in industry has a unique opportunity. Needless to say, companies frown on contact between science workers and production workers and especially on any interest by scientists in worker problems. Workers too are kept as much as possible in the dark about potential health and safety hazards. For example, under law, companies are compelled to keep a log book of accidents in their plants, but few of these allow workers access to such records. Similarly, health tests of new chemicals or new apparatus are kept from workers. Although most in-plant scientists do not have access to these records either, they can be of assistance in other ways. For example, they may be in a position to do an informal health and safety survey of the plant and report the findings to production workers. Or they may be able to do a literature search on potential plant hazards. They may help to prepare a union grievance brief, or suggest supporting scientific references.

Let us consider now some of the long-range problems and perspectives of work in occupational health and safety. First, the medical and scientific problems presented at a plant level are often difficult to assess, since the effects of many occupational hazards (e.g. lung cancer) result from multiple causes some of which are unrelated to work(e.g. smoking, general environmental pollution, hereditary predisposition to the disease etc.) . In addition many sources of potential hazards are encountered in any one workplace. Therefore, it is often quite difficult , and requires careful statistical studies, to pick out a particular occupational cause for an observed effect. Here a detailed knowledge of the actual production process is vital, requiring major input from workers on the shop floor. Without production worker collaboration, the scientist cannot understand concretely the medical hazards encountered, thus having only vague, almost useless abstractions to offer.

Finally, one of the most difficult problems for radical scientists is their relationship to the labor unions. On one hand, unions are the only organizations workers have to protect their wages and job security, and despite their limitations workers by and large support them. On the other hand, unions have chosen to defend a narrow set of worker interests-wages and fringe benefits—rather than challenging the repetitive, dehumanizing nature of industrial work or management’s prerogative to control the work process. (See for example Andre Gorz3) Then, to protect the wage gains embodied in the union-management contract, unions must live up to their no strike pledge, and thus often find themselves allied with management in opposing job actions and wildcat strikes over working conditions.

The result has been that a growing number of production workers are alienated from their jobs and from the unions which at best act only with reluctance to fight for better working conditions. These frustrations boiled over recently at the Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where young workers conducted a “slowdown” and, management claims, even sabotaged the production process, higher wages and the recession notwithstanding4. The shortcomings of many unions produce difficulties for the radical scientists who must often work through the unions to develop a broad based effort on occupational health and safety, while stopping short of total identification with them. There is no simple resolution of this tension, but it points to the necessity for scientists to continually promote worker interests, and not simply to perform a service function for the union leadership.

But if there are problems with the unions, there are also important possibilities opened up by the occupational health and safety issue. Not only does work on this issue help move the unions into areas they have often neglected, but it can help enlarge the workers’ sphere of control in the plant. By monitoring the work process and, if need be, forcing modification of it, workers begin to encroach on management’s “right” of control over working conditions inside the plant. And this may be the seed of worker control over the entire work process, looking toward the day when all institutions of society will be controlled by those who work in them and by those who are serviced by them. Thus occupational health struggles can be an important transitional step toward restructuring our society.

Finally, for those who recognize that a neutral science doesn’t exist in any society, work in occupational health and safety represents a step away from science in service to government and industry, and a step toward science for the people.

Labor History and Strategy:

Labor’s Untold Story, by R. Boyer and H. Morais, published by United Electrical Workers Union, 1955,11 E. 51st St., New York, N.Y.

Strategy for Labor, by Andre Gorz, Beacon Press paperback, 1968, Boston, Mass.

“Which Side Are You On—Trade Unions in America,” by Stanley Aronowitz, Liberation Magazine, December 1971.

“Prospects for the New Left,” by Staughton Lynd, Liberation Magazine, January 1971 .

Technical Aspects of Occupational Health and  Safety:

“Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene,” by the National Safety Council, 425 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611 ($10)

“Industrial Hazards: A Worker’s Guide for Controlling the Work Environment,” by Scientists Committee for Occupational Health, published by OCAW, Citizenship-Legislative Department, 1126 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036 ($5). (A revised, more up to date version will be published in the near future.)

“Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials,” by Irving Sax, Reinhold Press, 1968

“Diseases of the Occupations,” by Donald Hunter, Little-Brown Publishers, Boston, Mass., 1969

Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970:

“Occupational Health and Safety Standards” from the Federal Register, v. 36, no. 105, Saturday, May 29, 1971. Order free from U.S.” Dept. of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Washington, D.C. 20210.

“A Unionist’s Guide to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970,” by Urban Planning Aid, 639 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. 02139 ($.25)

Those interested in working in occupational health and safety should contact:

Dave Kotelchuk
49 W. 96th St. apt. 5-E
New York, New York 10025

Scientists Committee for Occupational Health
c/o Jeanne Stellman
5-C Barrett Drive
Kendall Park, N.J. 08824

Medical Committee for Human Rights
710 S. Marshfield Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60612

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  1. “Occupational Disease … The Silent Enemy,” a pamphlet published by the Public Health Service of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Available free from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, Md. 20852.
  2. Occupational Hazards, October, 1971, p. 55.
  3. Strategy for Labor, by Andre Gorz, Beacon Press paperback, 1968, Boston, Mass.
  4. New York Times, February , 1972, p.1