By Shel Samuels, Special Representative
April 25, 2010
Washington, DC - The global threats of Weapons of Mass Destruction share more than a set of initials with Workers’ Memorial Day: WMD. As this was written, eleven workers were missing and 17 injured in an exploding and sinking oil drilling rig in American waters of the Gulf of Mexico, owned by a Swiss company, leased to a British multinational oil company, and built in South Korea. The same day, the President of the United States delivered a eulogy for 29 miners killed in a West Virginia coal mine disaster to satisfy the insatiable production demands for coal. On April 28, 1971—almost four decades ago—the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect, opening what we hoped would be a new chapter in the struggle to protect ourselves against death, injury and illness at work.Like the Texas City refinery disaster preceding the passage of the OSHAct in 1970, the disasters in the Gulf and West Virginia are fast-running scenes from films that spur legislation, but slower motion scenes depict death from chronic work-associated disease for hundreds of thousands of other workers easier too easily ignored, for whom the eulogy is mumbled with closed eyes.
From the first day of enactment, the law was corrupted by the historic failures of the workers’ compensation systems. There are no accurate actual counts of death and disease generated in the American workplace. The first— and last — honest estimate published by the government, was calculated by its top biometrician, Bill Lloyd: 100,000 excess deaths per year. The size of the great pandemic of death in the workplace in America was greeted with corporate derision, governmental inaction and bi-partisan political orders for official silence!
The First Line of Defense: Prevention
Affiliates of the Metal Trades Department went to court to force the slow process of setting OSHA standards, beginning with asbestos. About 125 million people worldwide are still exposed to asbestos even though it is ostensibly banned in 52 countries—including the European Union. Some two-thirds of the nations of the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to sell and use asbestos. WHO estimates between 100,000 and 140,000 asbestos-related deaths from cancer alone (ANNUALLY???). Professor Joseph LaDou of the University of California-San Francisco estimates that “the asbestos cancer pandemic may take as many as 10 million lives before asbestos is banned worldwide and all exposure is brought to an end.”
The MTD and its affiliates—in partnership with labor’s doctor, Dr. Irving J. Selikoff of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, began the equally slow and difficult work of clinical intervention, the second line of defense for worker’s health. Dr. Selikoff, whose work ultimately focused the world’s conscience on the full effects of asbestos, and his team began with the screening of asbestos-exposed workers in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. With what we learned in the shipyards and in other industries, we then fought for medical surveillance programs for all workers. One positive result, at least in Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities, is a program of employer-conducted medical surveillance and sheltered workshops for active workers exposed to beryllium. A separate program supposedly conducted by “independent” physicians was congressionally-mandated for all former DOE workers, but has been limited by tight budgets, government micro-management and contractors tied to the employer.
Another, massive human tragedy had been unfolding for centuries in the uranium and beryllium mines and mills until (at least in this country in the 1950s) a handful of civil servants in the diminutive National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health aided by doctors of the Indian Health Service, initiated critical studies uncovering endemics of silicosis and cancer. In 1967, then-Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz testified that these tragedies could have been prevented under a 1936 federal law. Forty years later —despite concerted pressure by Native Americans and our unions for stronger protections—the Mine Safety and Health Administration established the far less stringent radon standard in force today in mines and mills.
After passage of the OSHAct, NIOSH also conducted studies that paved the way for OSHA’s first attempted beryllium standard, an effort that has been frustrated by White House-supported DOE interference (that continues to this day). The delays have resulted in hundreds of unnecessary cases of debilitating and deadly beryllium disease in the nuclear weapons system and other industries!
In the United States, besides workers in the nuclear industries, the number of industrial and remediation workers exposed to beryllium dust has increased with growing applications, even though the total number of industrial workers has decreased.
In the United States, in 1975, a union petition proposed replacing the 1949 Atomic Energy Commission so-called “interim” exposure standard with a ‘permanent’ standard, the number of industrial workers exposed was an estimated 30,000. Today that estimate has risen, to an estimated 800,000 workers in the United States alone who could be currently or previously exposed to debilitating and cancer-generating beryllium dust.
No agency has bothered to do a definitive count. The government has chosen to identify and count the sick and dying only in the primary beryllium industry and Department of Energy weapons facilities, although the toxic dust is also generated by production and waste disposal in other industries. Almost nothing has been done to look at the devastation of entire families, and the burden on their communities, but that omission is typical for all occupational disease, not just beryllium disease.
And we aren’t ‘safe’ behind the third line of defense for occupational health: compensation to our families for lost wages and medical care.
The Congress had before it a century of prior experience with state workers’ compensation systems, and the sad history of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990, before writing and incorporating similar provisions in the Energy Employees Compensation law in 2000. RECA was written to compensate communities exposed to testing and underground uranium miners. However, the new law incorporated traditional records-dependent cost containment provisions, records that most often are inadequate or don’t even exist. If they are found, their meaning is twisted to meet political compromises that date back to the first workers’ compensation statutes were written in Europe and in the Americas in the early 1900’s, predating the modern labor movement a generation later.
Compromises are the root of widespread intellectual corruption in occupational and environmental health science. Legislated lists of compensable disease distort the science in ways that were questionable even in 1900, and indefensible today. The medical expert is forced to twist what is known of risk in populations to pinpoint legal and social responsibility for individual cases, an objective unachievable with precision even with perfect records. Inevitably all parties are forced into what President Ron Ault correctly calls the “paper chase” and maladministration.
These effects are clearly seen in the radiation dose reconstruction program, mandated by Congress and administered by NIOSH, as illustrated by the four-year-old  MTD petition for a Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) for Pantex workers. SECs are based on an escape clause in the law to cover instances where records do not exist. We claim the records do not exist and reconstruction cannot be done.
The National Academy of Science goes further, and objects to NIOSH’s fictional reconstructions used to calculate “probability of causation”, because that concept “applied to populations and not individuals and could not be interpreted as the probability that a given cancer was caused by a given radiation exposure.” NIOSH – and Congress - have ignored that expert advice.
The result, as in the case of the 2006 pending petition for an SEC to be established for Pantex employees, not one but whole sets of claimants are subjected to unjustified, unnecessarily prolonged delays while NIOSH and its consultants argue with still other consultants about presumptions made in the absence of hard data.
Writing the End to This Tale
NIOSH claims that records are not necessary, because: “…the routine weapons operations at Pantex were technically contamination free …” The basis for this claim is the presence of product acceptance seal of approval on each weapon or material component, claiming that the component is “contaminant free.” This invalid claim is belied by the actual tasked behavior of both management and workers, and is contrary to the recorded observations of those actually engaged in or supervising assembly operations.This sad tale will only end when the weapons of mass destruction among the workforce—asbestos, beryllium and thousands of other toxic agents in the work environment, along with the corrupted science —come under control, when the labor movement in America and globally develops the strength of numbers and allies. Only then will Workers Memorial Day become a true celebration of life, and not an occasion for still more funerals of brothers and sisters taken from us before their time.