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by Chip Hughes & Len Stanley
Although the hazards of carbon disulfide exposure were recognized as early as 1851 in France, little has been written about the chemical in the United States. Both liquid and vapor are highly irritating to the skin, eyes, nose and air passages. This local irritation, however, is overshadowed by the serious long-term effects on the body after the chemical has been absorbed through the skin and lungs. High concentrations rapidly affect the brain, causing loss of consciousness and even death. Lower concentrations may cause headaches and giddiness or lung and stomach irritation.
Prolonged repeated exposures to relatively low levels of CS2 affect several parts of the body. Brain damage results in mental abnormalities such as depression, euphoria, agitation, hallucinations and nightmares. Nerve injury can cause blindness when the optic nerve is involved or weakness of the arms and legs when peripheral nerves are inflamed.
In 1943, Dr. Alice Hamilton, a pioneer in occupational health in the United States, described the symptoms of CS2 poisoning in her classic book, Exploring the Dangerous Trades. After studying workers in the newly-blossoming viscose rayon industry, she remarked that the men “knew that a distressing change had come over them, one they could not control. It spoiled life for them, it ruined their homes, it broke up friendships, it antagonized foremen and fellow workers, it made day and night miserable.” The reactions are the same three decades later.
Next time you open a bag of Fritos or a pack of cigarettes, think about Marvin Gaddy. Marvin has worked in Olin Corporation’s Film Division for over 20 years making cellophane wrapping. He can’t see as well as he used to and still gets nightmares every once in a while. He’s watched the lives of many men change after they came off that second floor. Some got eaten up with tumors and cancer. For some, it got so bad they took their own lives. Others were luckier and got out with only minor nerve problems to remind them of what it was like.
The second floor is in the Chemical Building at Olin’s Film Division near Brevard, North Carolina, on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest. The Film Division produces viscose which is extruded, solidified and dried to form cellophane. Twelve massive vats are kept in constant rotation, each mixing together 700-800 pounds of ripened alkali cellulose (raw wood pulp and 16 percent caustic acid). Marvin used to add carbon disulfide (CS2) to the rotating vats, to quicken the process of breaking down the raw wood pulp into a liquid cellophane-like mixture. Nobody ever told Marvin and his fellow workers that the CS2 could harm them. But they finally found out. Only then, it was too late.
“A lot of people would leave,” says Marvin. “The younger ones would come in there, work a few days, and then they’d in variably get a big whiff of CS2. People would act real unusual, get headaches and think they were getting the flu. After a few overdoses, the nightmares would start coming on them. We’d go in and tell the company, ‘Dammit, you’d better do something about this CS2 stuff’ They’d tell us to get the hell out- ‘we don’t need you. If you don’t enjoy your job, then go home.’ Course we didn’t have a union back then. And we didn’t have Jimmy Reese rummaging through their trashcans· and filing all those grievances and complaints.”
James Reese is a maintenance man at the Olin plant and chairman of the union safety committee for Local 1971 of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU). Olin workers had to stand up and fight for more than 30 years before they got the union in at Olin. The battle left a trail of beaten-up organizers, fired union sympathizers, and heart-breaking, one-vote Labor Board election defeats. Finally, in 1971, the union won a contract which included a safety comittee of company and union representatives. For the past five years, the committee has investigated numerous toxic substances: asbestos, carbon disulfide, formaldehyde, tetrahydrofuran, flax dust, noise, radiation, methyl bromide.
“I had learned the OSHA standards even before we got our union organized, till almost had them memorized. I was just kind of interested. It represented a kind of challenge to me because I’ve seen some of the conditions up there and I’ve been hurt on the job myself I m not sure what set me off I think it’s just the fact that I’m a kind of militant type of character and this way ,for once, I had something that they had to listen to. I finally had a law to back me up.”
Congress passed the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 in response to escalating on-the-job injury rates and intense pressure from national unions. The act created the OSHA Administration within the US Labor Department, with the responsibility for inspecting the workplace for hazards and imposing penalties of up to $10,000 when unsafe conditions were uncovered. In addition, the act gave rights to affected workers to assist them in cleaning up their plants. These workers’ rights are the most important aspect of the law, because unions and employees cannot depend on the chronically understaffed and under-financed OSHA Administration to initiate enforcement. Workers can file a complaint requesting an unannounced inspection, accompany the OSHA inspector during his or her inspection, demand an investigation of potentially harmful substances, and challenge the amount of time given a company to clean up recognized hazards. For the members of Local 1971 OSHA has become a tool they can use to take matter into their own hands.
James Reese: “Back in September of ’72, I heard from people that the company was gonna be doing these noise tests, so I went up there with them to see what was going on. This guy got on me pretty hot. He tried to get rid of me, and we got into a regular cuss fight over it. He says, ·You get out of here, you got no business in here.’ I says back, ‘I represent all the people in this union as their safety man.’ He kicked me out of there, but filed a grievance on it. In the first two steps of the grievance procedure the company said that the contract does not allow that an employee can leave his work station at any time. “So, then I got all fired up. I threatened to file charges with the federal government through OSHA on it. Well, that scared them, so they sent it up to the highest corporate levels. Pretty soon, a letter comes back from the higher-ups saying that we can watch any of their tests and also get all the records of what they find. This was just great. “I was getting a lot of this stuff they were doing. I don’t know whether they realized it or not, but I was making a lot of records. That’s what I was really after cause records have a way of kinda flying back in your face. And that’s what I was doing, getting it down on paper to show what their real attitude is toward safety and health- in spite of those big awards they got plastered all over the cafeteria walls and their reputation as a safe company.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was set up by Congress in 1970 as the research arm for the OSHA Administration. At an employee’s request, NIOSH inspectors will determine whether any toxic substance found in the workplace is causing harmful effects. Unfortunately, NIOSH does not have enforcement powers.
In July of 1973, a NIOSH industrial hygienist came to Olin’s Pisgah Forest plant to investigate the CS2. The NIOSH team went to the second floor and observed the leaky gaskets and pipes, and the air vacuums that clogged every once in a while. They also tested to see how much carbon disulfide was in the air when the big vats were opened for scraping. The dials on the NISOH equipment went up as high as they could – 288 parts per million (ppm). The OSHA standard for carbon disulfide is 20 ppm.
According to Emil A. Paluch, a Polish research scientist: “From the toxicological point of view a concentration of about 300 ppm of carbon disulphide is the amount which exceeds almost everybody’s tolerance in a comparatively short period of time and can produce serious pathological changes within a few days.”
Three months later, NIOSH sent down a physician to do a follow-up medical survey on neurological problems with the workers on the second floor. He interviewed 29 men, most of whom complained about recurring nightmares, abdominal pains headaches dizziness and insomnia. He summed up his, findings with a short statement: “A number of bizarre neurological findings were noted.” Among his findings were the following:
A 34-year-old man worked 14 1 /2 years in the chemical building prior to his transfer. He has a several-year history of numbness, pains, and tingling involving the right side of his face. A neurological consultant for the company diagnosed him with “a typical facial neuralgia.” A 44-year-old man with 22 years exposure. He has been on leave from work for two years with a vague arthritis-like ailment. A 37-year-old man with 16 years exposure had the onset of a convulsive disorder two years ago beginning ·with a three-day period of status epilepticus. His doctor told him his seizure was due to “a swelled blood vessel in the temporal area.” An extensive report by a neurological consultant hired by the company indicates no such finding to explain the onset of his epilepsy. He is currently depressed by his downgraded position (janitor). His neurological exam was normal.
“That last guy you read about, that was Jimmy Massey,” explained Bert McColl, who suffers himself from a rare form of hipbone decay that makes walking difficult. “Massey got this stuff worse than anybody. They called it epileptic fits for a long time so they wouldn’t have to pay no workers’ compensation to him. First time it happened, he was just sitting there eating supper with his wife and kids. Then he started having a fit. So the company said, “If it just happened at home, then it couldn’t have anything to do with his work.’ Later on, they found all the tumors.
“Jimmy Massey is still barely living over near Canton. They give him a few more months before the cancer will eat up his brain. His wife just had a baby recently. The family started runnin’ out of money with all the medical bills they had to pay, so the company put Jimmy back to work again. They put him on the janitor crew, going around the plant picking up trash. He’d wander round and round not even knowing what he’s supposed to do. He’d sit around by the time clock without even knowing when he should punch out.
” ‘Stogie’ Sellers used to work with this stuff, too, until it got him so depressed that he took his gun and killed himself George Sanders worked with us on the second floor, too. He used to empty all these trashcans full of CS2. Boy, did he get a lot of fumes! I worked around him the week before he died and you could definitely tell that he was in a strain. He was awful bad depressed. He wouldn’t say nothing to no one. His wife was pregnant at the time. He died of a shotgun wound one Saturday night. Everybody said it was just an accident.”
At the end of April 1974, NIOSH finally released its health hazard evaluation report for the CS2‘· The evidence showed that acute exposures to carbon disulfide had been occurring episodically and these exposures provoked the symptoms in the Olin workers. However, the report stated “there does not appear to be sufficient medical evidence at this time to warrant a conclusion that chronic exposure is occurring in a sufficient degree to provoke illness. Without question, several atypical and unexplained illnesses were encountered during the study. Time may eventually resolve these diagnostic problems.” The report concluded: “It is difficult to postulate that such diverse and asymmetric neurological problems are due to common exposure to toxic substances or due to some unusual personal susceptibility. Local problems of this type are probably related to chance distribution.”
Marvin Gaddy: “That’s all wrong. We can definitely show you why at least twelve out of these twenty-four people have had all these weird problems. They all worked with the CS2. You see, it’s really a nerve gas, at least that’s what they used it for back in the war. The stuff goes about working on the weakest nerves that you got. Now, my nerves and Bert’s are different. He can’t walk or move around the way he used to; I can’t see too good.”
After the NIOSH study was released, some small changes occurred around the Olin plant. At least there were some written records showing what the carbon disulfide had done. The company had to post the report in the plant and some people started reading it and getting their own ideas. Workers started calling James Reese after hours and telling him about health and safety problems in their particular departments – fumes, chemicals, machines without guards, trucks without brakes, etc.
Some of the chemical mixers came to James one day with a label that they’d taken off a bag. They said they’d just started using this dusty stuff called Cyclo-Fil, but the labels on the bag had worried them: “CautionContains Asbestos Fibers – A void Creating Dust – Breathing Asbestos Dust May Cause Serious Bodily Harm.” When called by James, the company safety man said there was no asbestos in the plant – “that stuff is called Cyclo-Fil.” James persisted and Olin agreed to send the material off to be tested by an impartial party. Two months later the report finally came back from the Georgia Tech research scientists. The next day they ordered that all Cyclo-Fil be taken out of the plant, and fired the purchasing agent who had ordered the material.
James Reese: “People have been turning up things, all these untested chemicals, like this kepone thing in Virginia. They had to even bury the plant and the St. James River got ruined. I think it’s coming to the stage where industry is gonna have to first prove its point. It’s not gonna work the way it’s been working. Cause people, when they start to see what’s really happenin’, then they’ll take things into their own hands and start closing these places down.
“The more pressure that’s put on them, the more publicity that can get generated, you start to get results from pushing on ’em, from finding out stuff about kepone and vinyl chloride and asbestos. It’s gonna start building, and people aren’t gonna stand for it no more …
For most employees in the South, occupational safety and health means little more than wearing masks and ear plugs. Corporate safety programs have mainly been built on the premise that the workers are to blame for the injuries or illnesses they receive from the workplace. As in the Olin situation, the existence of occupational diseases has historically been denied.
As the American chemical feast continues, the safety and health committee is emerging as a new structure for industrial self-protection. We can expect that the OSHA Administration will continue to limp along without adequate funds or personnel to enforce the law. James Reese and Local 1971 have learned that the only way to get the laws for self-protection enforced is to do it yourself. The companies learned this long ago. They are well protected and they know how to use the laws.
James Reese: “Olin brought Fletcher Roberts in here as the new ·Director for Safety and Loss Prevention’ right after we started filing all those OSHA complaints. He’s supposed to prevent them from losing money. In fact, he used to be the one who inspected all these companies around here for OSHA … It’ll scare him to death when I talk about calling the OSHA inspector, the very people he used to work with. I wonder why? All I can figure is this reason with him. We kept giving Olin such a hard time and I was calling in outside people quite a bit. I wasn’t making too many points, but at least things were getting- uncovered. Fletcher Roberts has been put in here to soft-soap me and stop all us people because somewhere it’s appearing on record in the corporate levels. Somewhere up there in Stamford, Connecticut, somebody don’t like it.”
Marvin Gaddy is still going to work in Olin’s Chemical Building every day, although he’s not up on the second floor anymore. They won’t let him go back. Now he’s got an easier job- no fumes, no scraping, no fear. “I may have to leave my department though. Especially on the graveyard shift, I feel what I’m doing, but I just don’t see it. Like this morning, I had to pull up aside the road on the way home from work. My eyes started watering and blurring … I couldn’t see … ”
After he finished talking, he got up and headed toward the door of the union hall:
“All that we’ve told you is the facts. I’ve got only four more years to retirement and all I care about is helping somebody else now. What I’ve said here, I’ve told all the doctors, all the lawyers, all the company men. But they can’t hurt me now.
“When you got a company that’s got the kind of money that Olin’s got and they go and tell their lawyers to fight on this and we’ll feed you- that’s the way the world is run. There’s some people that get caught and some that don’t . . . . Now Nixon, course he got caught.”
ORGANIZING FOR A SAFE AND HEALTHY WORKPLACE
The first step for workers concerned about occupational safety and health issues is to find out what dangerous substances they are exposed to. Many workers, like those in the Olin plant, accept the minor irritations of toxic fumes, dust and noise as a part of their jobs without realizing the effects of long-term exposure. Most workers are also unwilling to take the risks of speaking out about working conditions until they understand the serious harm caused by toxic substances.
If a company will not tell its employees what they are being exposed to in the workplace, an employee has a number of different options. If the plant is unionized, then the worker should first seek technical assistance from the international union. The Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCA W) in Washington and the United Rubber Workers (URW) in Akron, Ohio, both have excellent resource materials on industrial health hazards. An essential book for workers concerned about health hazards is Work is Dangerous to Your Health. by Stellman and Daum. This paperback book lists symptoms of various occupational diseases and the toxic effects of numerous industrial chemicals.
In the South, a number of organizations have begun to assist workers in seeking information about occupational health problems: N-COSH, Box 594, Durham, N.C. 27701; Southern Institute for Occupational Health (SIOH), Box 861, Cayce, S.C.; Occupational Health Studies Group, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (funded jointly by the United Rubber Workers and the rubber industry); and the Institute for Southern Studies, Box 230, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Urban Planning Aid has published a booklet that workers should find an invaluable reference. “How to Use OSHA” is especially thorough in its coverage of complaints, inspections and follow-up procedures. The booklet may be ordered from: Urban Planning Aid, 639 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. 02139. Individual copies are 75¢, bulk orders of 15 or more, 50¢.
Once a worker has discovered an occupational hazard, there are a number of different handles for fighting the problem. In a unionized plant, the grievance procedure may be the most effective first step. Many unions are also strengthening their positions by negotiating safety and health clauses in their contracts specifying the company’s obligation to provide information on harmful substances, access to exposure records for industrial chemicals, the right to refuse unsafe work, and equal decision-making power for the union safety and health committee. In a non-union shop, where an employee has no protection in complaining about unsafe conditions, filing an OSHA complaint may be the best tactic.
Under the OSHA law, workers are given the right to file a complaint requesting an unannounced inspection while remaining anonymous to their employers. The OSHA complaint process gives employees an added weapon to bring to bear against negligent employers, but it can only be effective when pressure is also brought to bear on the government to enforce the OSHA laws. When the OSHA inspector visits a plant for an inspection, workers have the right to have a recognized representative accompany the inspector to point out unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
The newly-won right to a workplace “free from recognized hazards” coupled with the unbridled proliferation of toxic substances in the workplace have combined to make occupational health one of the most controversial issues of the 1970s. Education and action by workers on the job can begin to make this right a reality.
—C.H. & L.S.
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure, a quarterly publication of the Institute for Southern Studies. Subscriptions are $8 per year, and can be obtained from Southern Exposure, P.O. Box 230, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514.