Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Tenneco Automotive Operating Company for 20 safety and health violations at its manufacturing plant in Hartwell, Georgia. Several violations involved hexavalent chromium exposure, which can lead to nose, throat, and lung damage. For more information, read the OSHA News Release.
Are we killing future generations in exchange for meager fines? Are hard-working agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other international bodies sufficiently empowered to have the resources needed to inspect all manufacturing facilities on a regular basis and offer decent whistle blowing programs that truly protect the source of disclosure?
The obvious answer in the United States is an astonishing no.
The recent discovery of hexavalent chromium in a Georgia work place and the resulting news coverage has brought this type of danger to the forefront. Yes, hexavalent chromium can have very dangerous human carcinogen effects, has raised lots of awareness through the movie, "Erin Brockovich," and is detectable through analysis of drinking water.
Unfortunately, it is not alone. Numerous other chemicals can also be toxic. Biotoxin abrin, cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, potassium cyanide, sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, ricin, sarin and vx are among other potential contaminants that employees and surrounding citizens can end up facing.
All of these chemicals have such levels of lethal toxicity that they are posted on the Emergency Response Safety and Health Database by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as used as part of chemical terrorism. Although some of these chemicals can cause relatively immediate allergic reactions, exposed individuals are often affected over a longer period of time, and the result can be a much more painful and grueling death. Most of the time, contamination through water, food and air/vapor gets absorbed in our bodies without us detecting their immediate presence. An international reform of the various laws appears to be required, as current U.S. fines for serious violations can be limited to $7,000 per incident.
Organizations such as the United Nations and the World Economic Forum have already created committees to study topics such as energy, water and food security. Their assessment of the economic and medical impacts of improper resource handling predicts negative bottom-line economic growth. It is rather unfortunate that instead of an initial investment of a few dollars on proper gloves and boots, current practices are to cut costs instead of saving lives of hundreds around the world.
Yet, the problem remains that acceptable practices vary from one country to another, fines are low, and enforcement agencies need to be properly empowered and be equipped with more staff and resources for ongoing inspections at all relevant facilities.
For example, at the Port of Oakland in California, where evidence of the impact of toxicity has been measured in direct relation to the increased occurrence of serious medical issues, the choice between immediate economic gains to businesses versus long-term medical costs to individuals becomes a decision that profit-minded executives no longer second guess.
Although more and more of us try to exercise daily and eat healthier, what is the point if many of us are going to be exposed to any of these chemicals while trying to make a living?
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Food & Drug Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security cannot possibly be the sole source for ensuring safe conditions and compliance. Instead, each organization must truly prioritize safety and hold themselves accountable.
Here is a list of safety practices that can be easily implemented in nearly all facilities:
- Ensure that all fire extinguishers are tested quarterly.
- Test the ongoing air quality and test employees' exposure to chemicals.
- Provide proper ventilation, A/C, heating and roofing.
- Ensure that all personnel change gloves, footwear, masks, clothing and other protective gear based on the toxicity and frequency of the materials to which they are exposed.
- Offer weekly security training to staff and, for heavily concentrated areas, ensure rotation of the exposed staff
- Develop a plan to limit the exposure to all chemicals and work with local resources in offering ongoing compliance to exceed regulatory requirements.
- Develop, practice and update emergency plans in case of a disaster on a quarterly basis.
- Provide a separate change area for all personnel.
- Provide separate storage facilities that are tested frequently to ensure avoidance of lethal leaks.
- Adopt intense cleansing practices.
- Share inventory listings of all chemicals onsite with your local fire department in case of extreme contamination, explosion or fire.
- Maintain emergency kits, safety showers and eye washers within 300 feet of your staff.
- Dispose of toxic waste using sealed containers on a timely basis and at authorized locations.
- Ensure that all electrical equipment that handles toxics is equipped with on/off power switches.
- Equip your facilities with plant-size surge suppressors at breaker boxes.
- Test and maintain all equipment on a weekly basis, including but not limited to forklifts and other mobile equipment.
- Test and maintain alarms on all boilers to identify challenges with pressure and water cooling systems.
- Properly dispose of all contaminated and unused containers that are not going to be used; otherwise, ensure proper decontamination of units.
- Equip your staff with proper communication devices such as hand-held radios so they can alert one another in case of incidents.
- Test and calibrate measuring equipment frequently such as outdoor truck scales, etc.
- Maintain a secured lab to verify on-site the toxicity of all products manufactured and sold.
- Provide covers to all electrical mounts; chemical dust can easily penetrate exposed electrical plugs.
- Provide guards on machines, along stairs and multi-level facilities to prevent falls.
- Have extra safety gear that visitors (including suppliers or customers) can use.
- Place appropriate health/safety posters in highly visible areas.
- Consult with medical professionals and have employees get medical evaluations on a regular basis to ensure that toxicity levels are non-existent or low. First thing would be to perform a baseline level of their body upon pre-employment. Then, upon employment, test their blood quarterly for chemical levels.
Exposure to chemicals is an unnecessary occurrence that has incredible long-term costs. Let's work together on prevention and always trust, but verify!