THE BLOG
04/04/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

Cheap Furniture Should Not Kill or Maim U.S. Workers

After reading the front page of the New York Times last week about the hazards affecting workers in North Carolina cushion plants, I decided to do a bit of research. The article by Ian Urbina, As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester, explains the use of an adhesive called n-propyl bromide (or nPB) - which is used across this country in auto body shops, dry cleaners, high tech plants and in the furniture cushion fabrication business.

STOP USING U.S. WORKERS AS LAB RATS

It was sickening to read about the toxic environment that has affected these workers in the prime of their life. Reading about a woman in her 40s who has a "dead foot" and others who were supposed to be protected by OSHA regulations, but who have become victims again - accepting low-ball settlements by a company with a documented history and awareness of the illness caused by the use of the nPB adhesives.

Warnings about nPB came from medical researchers, government officials and chemical companies (that no longer make it!) that this adhesive causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods. It is also possibly a human carcinogen - or a known cancer-causing substance, according to the US. EPA.

ould you put your family member into a chemical factory where they work in fumes that are known cancer causing agents? Can you imagine a cloud of toxins that permeates the breath of someone who has been off duty for days? Can you imagine the owner not facing any real penalties from a decade of observation from the OSHA agency? How many people will have to get sick, cancer or neurological disabilities?

According to the New York Times article, OSHA advised the company to stop using nPB-based glues, but each time inspectors showed up, this Royale Foam Cushion plant had exposed more workers to the chemical at higher levels than were advised safe even by the glue companies. Fans were turned off, filters were not changed, and plastic covered ventilation areas to keep temperatures warmer in winter.

OSHA advised the company to stop using the nPB-based glues in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2011 - but as inspectors came and went, nothing changed. OSHA is supposed to protect the health and safety of workers, but in this instance, there were limited penalties given - $20,000 over a decade, and in fact the agency actually lowered fines for this repeat violator. And with no consistent reinforcement about penalties from inspectors, the worker health became the casualty. Evidence was given by both workers and plant operators who stated that the nPB adhesive "...put the fog in your head", or " ...it's a cheap high" and the worst quote, "If you don't clear your head, it [nPB] will clear you..."

OSHA assisted in the cover-up of reality - young women are now infertile, young men cannot walk - and respiratory, sinus, intestinal, skin rashes, insomia and headaches - are all signs of poisoning.
OSHA fines were minimal and given the reality that this minimally educated workforce would simply "disappear" with a settlement check for workers compensation, there is now a documented ten year record of wasted taxpayer dollars and sick people.

SUPPORT FIRMS THAT HAVE HEALTHY PRACTICES

OSHA should start giving grants to the U.S. manufacturing industry to use toward retooling and implementation of safer practices, in a way that will assist competitiveness toward foreign manufacturing firms. It's time to stop building the bureaucracy, and build jobs!

There are many innovative firms who are showing that job creation, manufacturing pride and technological innovation does not require the use of nPB and other toxins. These US based companies are winning the battle to survive in this challenging economy and they are careful to maintain sustainable practices. And they do not use nPB glues to cut costs.

According to the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) - a non-profit regulatory organization with an accreditation program focused on manufacturing companies with best practices, "The SFC members are continually working to offer products that are safe for our environment, safe for the health of our customers and safe for the health of our members and their employees. Many of our members have assured us that they do not use n-propyl bromide glues and that they protect their workers appropriately. The SFC encourages all foam manufacturers to do the same and stop the use of n-PB."

ARE CONSUMERS AFFECTED BY FUMES IN THEIR HOMES?

A toxic glue used at the factory could mean a toxic piece of furniture with adhesive fumes that may off-gas into the home of a consumer. We deserve as consumers and taxpayers a right to products that do not degrade indoor air quality. It is my belief that a healthier home environment is based on safe products that do not contribute to the degradation of indoor air quality.

According to Mitchell Gold, one of the leading manufacturers and retailers of fine furnishings, "We are very thorough in verifying all our suppliers conduct themselves in a safe and humane way. Unfortunately, the NYTimes did not seek manufacturers who are part of the solution and not the problem. Since our beginning in 1989 we have made a safe work place. Protecting the environment a cornerstone of our business practices."

Lee Industries, a top supplier of residential and hospitality upholstered furniture and Silver Exemplary member of the SFC, strongly denounces the practices depicted in the recent NY Times article. Says Norm Coley, "Lee Industries has written confirmation that none of our foam products has had or has the nPB adhesives. We also have embarked on a code of conduct from our supply chain to ensure that none of our components and materials contain any of the 'Chemicals of Concern'. This is an ongoing effort to ensure our products remain safe and toxin free."

It is critical for consumers to educate themselves and to ensure that they patronize firms with a commitment to the health of consumers.

US JOBS WILL COME FROM MANUFACTURING

As I stated in one of my previous Huffington Post pieces (May 2011): Many people think only about price when making a purchase. They should also think about where an item is manufactured...not only for the carbon footprint, but also to keep people employed in the United States. For the longest time, a factory job was an opportunity to step into the middle class - and to ensure the opportunities for the next generation. In the past twenty years, we have let many manufacturing jobs slip away - and the knowledge base is not being passed down - thus crippling our ability to preserve the manufacturing sector.

We must begin a return to a somewhat ethnocentric view of purchasing items that are Made in the U.S.A., if only to preserve jobs and skills. But, the manufacturers must also continue their emphasis on quality - and remain focused on being price conscious as well... this is the only way to ensure that the manufacturing sector begins its rebound.

In summary, there are hundreds of U.S. based manufacturing firms and it is time for consumers to look for the Sustainable Furnshings Council logo as they are careful to screen manufacturers who have practices that harm employees. I think that it is time for consumers to demand that OSHA stop using American workers as lab rats and start buying from firms that are committed to healthy and sustainable practices.

As an eco-designer focused on wellness in the home, it is my belief that most U.S. based manufacturing firms adhere to rigorous testing criteria, environmental standards and sustainability programs that lift them to the next level in their stewardship of our environment. And we need to support them as consumers!