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Sheri Farley, who says glue fumes at the Royale Comfort Seating plant where she worked led to neurological damage, at her home in Taylorsville, N.C., Feb. 12, 2013. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has largely ignored long-term threats like the glue and instead focused on the here-and-now dangers in workplaces.

Leslye Davis, Nyt - Nyt

The Royale Comfort Seating plant, where workers fell seriously ill after working with glue containing n-propyl bromide, in Taylorsville, N.C., Feb. 12, 2013. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has largely ignored long-term threats like the glue and instead focused on the here-and-now dangers in workplaces.

Leslye Davis, Nyt - Nyt

OSHA stresses safety while long-term health issues fester

  • Article by: IAN URBINA
  • New York Times
  • March 30, 2013 - 6:53 PM

– Sheri Farley walks with a limp. The only job she could hold would be one where she does not have to stand or sit longer than 20 minutes, otherwise pain screams down her spine and up her legs.

“Damaged goods,” Farley describes herself, recalling how she recently overheard a child whispering to her mother about whether the “crippled lady” was a meth addict.

For about five years, Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under such brand names as Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry-cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for at least 10 years that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.

Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, which disputes that Farley’s health problems were associated with her job, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, did not provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.

But it is much more than the tale of one company, or another chapter in the national debate over regulations. Instead, it is a parable about the law of unintended consequences. It shows how an Environmental Protection Agency program meant to prevent the use of harmful chemicals fostered the proliferation of one, and how a hard-fought victory by OSHA in controlling one source of deadly fumes led workers to be exposed to something worse.

And it highlights a startling fact: OSHA, the watchdog agency, has largely ignored long-term threats. It devotes most of its budget and attention to responding to here-and-now dangers rather than preventing the silent, slow killers that, in the end, take far more lives. Over the past 40 years, the agency has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic. But for the tens of thousands of other dangerous substances U.S. workers handle each day, employers are largely left to decide what exposure level is safe. By contrast, OSHA has two dozen pages of regulations just on ladders and stairs.

“I’m the first to admit this is broken,” said OSHA director David Michaels, whose tenure since December 2009 has been characterized by more aggressive enforcement than that of his most recent predecessors. “Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people end up on the gurney.”

Chronic ailments caused by toxic workplace air — black lung, stonecutter’s disease, asbestosis, grinder’s rot, pneumoconiosis — incapacitate more than 200,000 U.S. workers annually at a cost of $250 billion per year, said government data analyzed by J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California, Davis. More than 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work. And yet the full price is measured not just in hospital bills and wages lost, but also in the ways, large and small, that life has changed for Farley and other sickened workers. Glue fumes robbed her of dignity and the joy of small comforts. Her favorite high heels stay in her closet because her feet no longer cooperate. She barks at her 8-year-old daughter, Allie, for hopping around their double-wide trailer because the floor’s vibrations cause intense stinging. “I did the work,” Farley said. “This doesn’t seem a fair price to pay.”

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