In August 1984, Patricia Ware, an employe of Miller Shoe Co. in Cincinnati for 13 years, came down with pneumonia. After a month of unsuccessful treatments, Ware's doctor sent her to a lung specialist who performed lung biopsies. The tests revealed that she had interstitial pneumonia caused by inhaling oils and chemicals at her workplace.
Today, Ware spends at least 10 hours a day on oxygen -- and longer periods of time when she has infections. She no longer can climb the stairs in her home and hasn't seen her upstairs' rooms since shortly before she contracted pneumonia.
But what especially angers her is that the government had evidence of the risks the chemicals posed for workers, but didn't tell all the workers exposed to those chemicals.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conducted a study in 1982 on the health risks posed to workers at another shoe company, in Red Wing, Minn. That study indicated that the cleaners and solvents used in shoe manufacturing contributed to respiratory ailments and other diseases, but Ware and other workers in the industry were not informed. When Ware told officials at her own firm about her illness, they reacted with disbelief, she said, vowing to fight a workers compensation claim if she filed one.
Ware testified earlier this year before a Senate subcommittee on labor, which was holding hearings on proposed legislation known as the High Risk Occupational Disease Notification and Prevention Act. "I feel like, if we had known, some way we could have gotten some help. . . .It seems to me somebody had to know that there is something in those chemicals that could hurt us like that, and that there should have been some way to do something to prevent what happened to us," she said.
The bill, introduced earlier this year by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), has 16 Senate cosponsors and is supported by a wide array of union and health groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association. A similar measure in the House has more than 130 sponsors. The issue is expected to be voted on in the House later this summer.
Ware is not alone in her plight, according to Metzenbaum. When he introduced the bill, the Ohio senator cited government studies indicating that 100,000 workers die each year from occupational illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory ailments. Another 340,000 workers are disabled by these diseases. It is estimated that 7 million American workers face increased risks of illness from just three hazardous substances: benzene, asbestos and arsenic.
"I think workers are entitled to be notified of the risks of cancer from exposure to hazardous substances," Metzenbaum said in a recent interview. "To do anything less is to participate in a conspiracy of silence." He noted that the bill would save millions of dollars now being expended on medical care for disabled workers.
The proposed legislation would set up a system of identifying, notifying and monitoring workers who have been exposed to chemical hazards. It would authorize spending $25 million for each of the first two years after enactment and anticipates that approximately 500,000 workers would be notified each year.
To achieve these results, the bill would rely primarily on existing federal records of worker exposures to dangerous substances. It also would utilize 10 already constructed health centers to screen workers and advise them about health risks and how they ought to treat illnesses.
Sheldon Samuels, a health and safety expert with the AFL-CIO, said that the bill is "a super health promotion bill. . . . We're trying to break the chain of causal events between exposure and the onset of disease." William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, testified at hearings on the bill that millions of workers today are exposed to hazardous chemicals that increase their risk of illness. He cited these statistics: Three million workers who have been exposed to benzene run a five-times-greater-than-normal risk of leukemia. 2.5 million workers who have been exposed to asbestos face a risk of lung cancer five times greater than normal.1.5 million workers who have been exposed to nickel have a risk of cancer five to 10 times greater than normal. 1.5 million workers who have been exposed to arsenic face a risk of lung cancer two to five times greater than normal.
The Reagan administration has opposed the proposed legislation, saying it would duplicate current programs, and that the cost would be prohibitive.
Under existing federal law, employers must keep records of hazardous materials to which workers are exposed. Employers also are supposed to provide general notification of health risks to employes through bulletin boards or other means.
In late May, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration completed implementation of a new program, the Hazard Communication Standard, which requires all manufacturers and importers of dangerous chemicals to label them clearly, to train workers in their handling and to warn workers of risks. The training program's cost would be borne by employers rather than by the government, and OSHA estimates that the new standard would cover as many as 575,000 hazardous chemical products.
Patrick Tyson, the former director of OSHA, and J. Donald Millar, the head of NIOSH, testified against the bill at the Senate subcommittee hearings. They said they agreed with the ends of the legislation but disagreed with the means. They estimated that individual notification of workers would cost between $33 and $50 per employe.
In his testimony, Millar warned that, "If this legislation is enacted, we believe it will hinder our efforts in this area by establishing new bureaucratic structure and infeasible policy criteria and by detracting from our other research and training mandates." Further, Millar expressed concern that the legislation might trigger lawsuits against employers, and he cited a 1979 NIOSH pilot program of individual notification resulting in $300 million of lawsuits.
The bill also has come under attack on similar grounds from business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. "We feel the bill is unnecessary, and it may be costly," said Elizabeth Ramsey, an associate director of NAM.
Backers of the bill contend it is needed because many workers are not adequately covered by current programs, including the new OSHA Hazard Communication Standard. They dispute the cost issue.
Dr. John Finklea, the director of NIOSH from 1975 to 1978 and now a specialist in preventive medicine at the University of Alabama, testified that workers who have retired or whose plants have been shut down would not be protected by the new OSHA standard. Government employes, farm workers and some employes of small businesses also would lack coverage under the OSHA program.
The Health Research Group, a consumer activist organization affiliated with consumer activist Ralph Nader, has charged that NIOSH has been derelict in its duties by failing to notify workers that NIOSH studies indicated they faced an increased risk of diseases. In early 1985, Nader's group cited studies of more than 200,000 workers at 249 workplaces in chemical, steel, uranium mining and other industries that NIOSH had determined were high risks, but whom the agency had failed to inform.
According to the health research group, NIOSH scientists advocated individual notification of workers, but the necessary funding was blocked by the Reagan administration. And a NIOSH advisory board of scientists last month recommended that NIOSH adopt a wider range of notification methods including individual worker notifications. The federal Centers for Disease Control, moreover, has gone on record stating that NIOSH has an ethical obligation to notify workers individually.
Metzenbaum said the Reagan administration's criticism of the proposed bill's cost seems shortsighted when juxtaposed against the medical costs. Metzenbaum has estimated that, if only one out of 20 workers notified acts soon enough to receive preventive health care and saves at least $1,000 in medical costs, the total expense of the program would be more than offset. "The administration is being penny-wise and pound foolish," Metzenbaum said.