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A recent lengthy piece in the New York Times explored an important criticism leveled against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about how it has largely failed to protect workers from long-term workplace harms.

The article focused on a harmful chemical used in furniture factories across North Carolina, n-propyl bromide (nPB), by workers trying to glue cushion together. The chemical has been found to cause serious problems in workers who have been exposed to it for long periods of time, including neurological damage and infertility, but little has been done by OSHA to stop others from suffering similar harm.

Though many groups have been critical of OSHA, often accusing the agency of being overzealous, others criticize the agency for frequently ignoring long-term threats to workers in favor of monitoring specific incidents of harm or isolated workplace accidents. The New York Times piece claims that OSHA devotes the bulk of its budget and investigative power to responding to complaints about present dangers while largely ignoring the silent, slow killers that can ultimately result in many more lives lost.

The problem is a big one given that chronic ailments caused by toxic workplace air incapacitate more than 200,000 people in American every year while 40,000 people die prematurely per year from exposure to toxic substances found in their workplace. Despite the massive amount of harm caused by toxic substances, OSHA has only released written exposure limits for 16 of the deadliest substances. For thousands of other substances, employers are left to decide on their own what level is safe. In comparison, OSHA reportedly has more than two-dozen pages of regulations specifically concerning ladders and stairs.

OSHA’s own director has admitted there’s a problem, describing the system of dealing with long-term health threats as “broken.” Critics have accused the agency of failing to take a broader view of complaints from workers. Rather than actively enforce regulations, the agency typically only responds to specific complaints, at times getting lost in the minutiae and not focusing on the larger problem.

One problem is understaffing at OSHA, which has 2,400 inspectors responsible for overseeing eight million work sites. Shockingly, the amount of money in the federal budge spent on protecting workers is less than half the amount dedicated to protecting fish and wildlife. Another problem is the amount of money OSHA can fine employers who need to be punished. Even in the most serious cases, where there is a substantial probability of death, the maximum fine OSHA is capable of handing down is $7,000. The highest fine for repeated and willful violations is $70,000, paling in comparison to the potential harm suffered by workers. At the same time, fines issued by the Department of Agriculture can be $130,000 for those farmers who fail to pay milk fees in a timely manner or FCC fines of $325,000 to broadcasters for airing indecent content.

If legislators are serious about protecting workers then they need to start putting their money where their mouths are. Paying lip service to protecting employees is pointless, instead, lawmakers need to ensure that regulators have the financial and legal resource they need to aggressively investigate and prosecute employers who have compromised worker safety.

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton & Favaloro personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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