April 28 is a day when we at OSHA and the Department of Labor reaffirm that no job is a good job unless it’s a safe job. Workers Memorial Day is a time to remember workers who have been killed, hurt, or made sick by their jobs. Today, in their honor and on behalf of their families, we renew our commitment to the safety and health of every worker.
Before the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, an estimated 14,000 workers were fatally injured on the job every year. Many more died from diseases caused by exposure to benzene, silica, asbestos and other serious health hazards. Today workplaces are much safer and healthier. But there is still much work to be done.
Unfortunately, the workplace hazards that you usually hear about are the ones you can see — trenches and grain silos, fall hazards and forklifts, electrical wiring and machines with moving parts. But many of the most serious hazards are the “silent killers” – the ones we can’t see, such as airborne chemicals and fine particles of dust.
American workers use tens of thousands of chemicals every day. While many of these chemicals are known or suspected of being harmful, we have workplace exposure standards for only a small fraction. Workers pay the price for lack of regulation – workplace chemical exposures that have already occurred are responsible for tens of thousands of worker deaths every year.
Some of these silent killers, like silica dust and asbestos, work slowly over years of continuous exposure. Other chemicals, like lead and formaldehyde, can have serious effects after relatively short exposures. Whether slow or fast, these tragedies can and must be prevented.
OSHA is very concerned about chemical exposures in the workplace. The American people rightly expect OSHA to have standards that protect workers from preventable death and illness. But there are countless chemicals and chemical mixtures for which we have no permissible exposure limits (PELS). And with few exceptions, the current OSHA PELS have not been updated since they were adopted in 1971, while scientific data clearly indicate that many of these exposure limits do not protect all workers from harm. This is why we have proposed a new standard to protect workers from exposure to crystalline silica dust.
In the near future, we will be calling on employers, unions, workers, safety and health professionals and researchers to engage in a conversation on how to better protect workers from these serious chemical hazards.
Ultimately, employers are responsible for keeping their workplaces safe and healthy – it’s not only their legal obligation, it’s the right thing to do. Responsible employers know that protecting workers is the best investment they can make in their workplace. But we need all employers to make worker safety and health a priority.
Fortunately, businesses aren’t in it alone! OSHA offers many resources for employers to help them protect their workers – including resources on using safer chemicals and safer chemical exposure limits. Every worker deserves to come home safe at the end of the day, and OSHA can help.
You can help, too, by spreading the word. Let everyone in your industry know that workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths can be prevented. Contact OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA or visit www.osha.gov to learn more.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.