The New York Times today published an article that exposes the hazards faced by workers in North Carolina and other states who are exposed to the chemical n-propyl bromide, or nPB. The chemical is used by workers in our state who glue together foam cushions for chairs and couches in the furniture industry. The workers in NC plants apply the glue to blocks of foam using spray guns, and the glue ends up in the air inside the plant, coating the workers’ clothes, hair, and lungs. Over-exposure to nPB causes damage to nerve endings, so that the workers’ feet become numb or painful, and they end up not being able to walk properly. The condition is commonly known as “dead foot.”
The article exposes a widespread problem — that OSHA puts most of its time and energy into regulating physical hazards that cause specific injuries, but does not do much to limit exposure to tens of thousands of dangerous substances that American workers handle each day. According to the article, more than 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work. Royale Comfort Seating, which has three plants in NC, was inspected over and over by OSHA ,yet failed to comply with the agency’s instructions to protect workers. Instead of ventilating to the outside, the company brought in pedestal fans. Instead of $18 respirators, the company handed out 90-cent dust masks. The article lists the desire of the company to save money, and OSHA’s lack of political will as the reasons that workers have continued to be sickened and unable to walk.
Such practices harm workers, and also harm those careful employers who watch out for their workers’ safety, by competing with them unfairly.