Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

“The federal budget for protecting workers is half what the federal government allots to protect fish and wildlife.”


There is often nowhere to turn for workers experiencing the harmful long-term effects of exposure to dangerous chemicals.  The government agency entrusted with monitoring worker safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has been accused of having a shortsighted view of worker safety wherein they investigate the here and now while larger, systemic problems are left unregulated.  To OSHA’s credit, underfunding has been a tremendous hurdle for some time now as well.

North Carolinian Sheri Farley, who worked with glue that contained the chemical known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB, has suffered severe nerve damage from chemical exposure. She now walks with a limp due to a condition her and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

Farley is a former employee of Royale Comfort Seating, a company which uses glue adhesives to create chairs.  Royale Comfort Seating has self-regulated the level of exposure to this chemical for over 15 years despite knowing how damaging it can be. Now, OSHA has discovered that Royal Comfort Seating failed to provide proper ventilation and sailed far above acceptable levels of nPB exposure. 

While the EPA and OSHA more firmly regulated other adhesives, use of nPB has grown 15-fold the past six years.  This problematic trend is dubbed “regrettable substitution.”

For those affected, the loss of a job and depressed wages are the least of the worst.  At the age of 45, the small things that make life enjoyable are no longer attainable for Sheri Farley who is likely to feel the effects of overexposure for the rest of her life.  As described by the Herald Tribune,
The full price of this epidemic 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 about her years putting together furniture for America’s households. “This doesn’t seem a fair price to pay.”

Over the past 40 years, OSHA has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic.  OSHA has nearly two dozen pages of regulations pertaining to stairs and ladders.  Yet, chemicals like nPB are left to be regulated by employers.  OSHA Director David Michaels says he’s “the first to admit this is broken.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people end up on the gurney.”

Unregulated air in the workplace incapacitates more than 200,000 American workers a year. 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to such chemicals, more than 10 times the amount that die in fires, explosions, and mine collapses. Illnesses like Farley’s cost the economy $250 billion per year because of medical expenses and lost productivity, according to government data analyzed by J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California. This is more than the cost of diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Medicare and Medicaid cover more than 40 percent of the medical costs from workplace exposure. 

The Obama Administration has expressed interest in bolstering OSHA’s ranks but the ratio of inspectors to workers remains 1:60,000.  The federal budget for protecting workers is half what the federal government allots to protect fish and wildlife.  Factor in low fines (The maximum penalty for a violation that causes a “substantial probability of death — or serious physical harm” is $7,000 and the highest fine for a willful and repeated violation is $70,000) and you can see why employers are slow to change their unscrupulous practices. OSHA’s Michaels commented saying,

‘If the cost of compliance to our rules outweighs the penalties for breaking them, companies just take a ‘catch me if you can’ approach to worker safety and health,” he said. And serious violations of the rules should not be misdemeanors, he said, but felonies, much like insider trading, tax crimes and antitrust violations.

It is already too late for workers like Farley who have been damaged by dangerous fumes.  Hopefully her story can inspire the next generation of workers’ advocates to fight for their right to safety so that the vicious cycle can be stopped.


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