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Each year in advance of Workers’ Memorial Day — April 28 — a group in Philadelphia tries to tally every job-related death that occurred in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware the previous year.
This year’s list includes 145 names, among them Duane Canipe, 65, who fell through a skylight and landed 23 feet below on May 11, 2014; Moses G. Fisher, 24, who was overcome by methane gas in a grain silo on September 17, 2014; and Adrian Perez, 54, whose clothing became entangled in a concrete-crushing machine on January 9, 2015.
Perpetually uncounted are those who die of work-related illnesses — the “invisible victims” who succumb, generally years after exposure, to poisons such as asbestos, said Barbara Rahke, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s almost impossible to get their names,” she said.
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4,585 people were killed on the job in this country in 2013. Experts say, however, that the death toll from occupational disease in America may be 10 or more times higher. Workers in developing nations almost certainly have it worse.
For this reason, the International Trade Union Confederation — a Brussels-based organization that represents 176 million workers belonging to 328 national affiliates, such as the AFL-CIO in the United States — decided that its theme for Workers’ Memorial Day 2015 would be “removing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace.”
“Chemicals we would have imagined by now would be globally banned keep popping up,” the confederation’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said in a recent telephone interview. “We see emerging fears around some of the new technological issues such as nanotechnology... it’s extraordinary, really. There’s a lot of fear amongst workers.”
In a new report, the confederation cites what it calls a “cautious estimate” from the International Labour Organization that puts the annual death toll from workplace toxics at 651,279 worldwide. That’s one death every 52 seconds. The ILO says there are 160 million new cases of occupational disease each year.
Chemical use, meanwhile, is soaring. More than 84,000 chemicals, only a fraction tested for safety, are in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act inventory, up from 62,000 in 1982. The North American chemical market is expected to grow by 25 percent from 2012 to 2020, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme.
“The reality is, workers have very little capacity today to track exposures in their careers,” said Anabella Rosemberg, the International Trade Union Confederation’s Paris-based policy advisor for occupational health, safety and environment. “When workers change sectors or companies very often, we don’t have health systems that allow them to know what substances they’ve been exposed to.” The burden is on the worker to prove harm, Rosemberg said. “This needs to change.”
The epidemic of work-related cancer and other diseases cries out for stricter regulation, say Rosemberg and her counterpart at the AFL-CIO, Peg Seminario. “We have very few standards to protect workers [in the U.S.], and those we have are 40 or 50 years old and woefully out of date,” Seminario said.
The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration admitted as much in a 2013 press release introducing a new Web tool to allow workers and employers to compare OSHA’s chemical exposure limits with often-stricter ones recommended by other agencies or bodies or enforced by the state of California. “There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective,” David Michaels, assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health, was quoted as saying in the release.