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Our Workforce is Not Disposable

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January 13, 2010

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, Chair
SENATE HEALTH, EDUCATION, AND PENSIONS COMMITTEE

U.S. Representative George Miller, Chair
HOUSE EDUCATION AND LABOR COMMITTEE

U.S. Representative Edolphus Towns, Chair
COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM

U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, Chair
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND COMMERCE

U.S. Representative Lynn Woolsley
SPONSOR, PROTECTING AMERICA'S WORKERS ACT

Re: Updating OSHA to protect America's workers

Dear Congressional delegates,

I was heartened to learn that Congress may overhaul the very outdated OSHA. I am writing to encourage you to do so and, in particular, to include provisions which recognize chemical-induced illnesses and require employers to protect workers from such illnesses.

Some of you may know of me from my work to bring justice to fishermen, communities, and workers injured by the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS). Most recently in December 2009, PBS Green Planet aired the award-winning documentary Black Wave: The Legacy of the EVOS. One of the two injured workers in the film, Captain Richard Nagel, has died; the other, Merle Savage, has written a book and is committed to helping other injured EVOS workers: http://www.silenceinthesound.com/stories.shtml.

In Alaska during the EVOS cleanup, at least 6,700 cases of respiratory illnesses and associated central nervous system (CNS) ailments were dismissed as the "Valdez Crud". Subsequent research on human health impacts from the Prestige oil spill in Spain (2002) and the Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea (2007) document similar illnesses. In New York, chemical-induced illnesses were dismissed as the "911 Crud"; in Florida, it was the "Katrina Crud."

The "Crud" is not specific to Alaska, New York, or Florida: It could happen anywhere cleanup responders are overexposed to chemicals because the "Crud" is in OSHA. OSHA has not been updated to include chemical-induced illnesses, which medical professionals did not have the sophistication to recognize forty years ago when OSHA was passed.

Ironically, OSHA regulations for Hazardous Waste Cleanups currently exempt employers from reporting colds and flu. However, the symptoms of chemical-induced exposure through inhalation - the "Crud" - mimic colds and flu. Thus, OSHA likely exempts the very types of work-related illnesses it purports to protect workers from. In so doing, OSHA protects employers from costs of long-term health monitoring, a cost which is passed to the injured worker and/or taxpayers through Medicare.

Our workforce is not disposable. OSHA is supposed to protect workers, not employers. I urge you to take action to protect America's workers by updating OSHA to include chemical-induced illnesses and other action as follows:
  • Remove exemption for reporting colds and flu [29 CFR 1904.5(b)(2)viii].
  • In Hazardous Waste Cleanups, require employers to give medical and monitoring records to OSHA to avoid need for costly subpoenas.
  • In Hazardous Waste Cleanups, require employers to keep medical records for 30 years.
  • Change 2-year statute of limitations on filing toxic torts to when illness is diagnosed rather than when exposure occurred.
Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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