Protecting workers from chemicals

A whole new area of occupational health is getting more attention from workers and their unions. The scientific term is Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis (HP).

Simply stated, HP is an inflammation of the air sacs within the human lung that caused by an allergic reaction to organic dusts or chemicals inhaled at work. Even more simply said, the symptoms are difficulty in breathing and other allergic reactions.

Fluid mists from metal working and fumes from industrial solvents can cause this reaction. This kind of exposure is hard to document in terms of work-relatedness because many workers bring allergies to the workplace. But that precondition does not mean that these respiratory conditions cannot become aggravated by further exposure to workplace aerosols and solvents. Employers will do anything to make sure that workers don’t qualify for workers’ compensation payments.

It is very difficult to use federal and/or state regulations to protect workers from oil mists, aerosol sprays and other fumes that cause significant asthma reactions. In most work situations, industrial hygiene tests will show results below regulatory standards. That doesn’t mean workers should be left defenseless.

As with regulations, it is very difficult – but not impossible – to win workers’ compensation awards for workers who suffer from these symptoms and who lose time from work. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible.

Protecting workers from these kind of respiratory hazards requires resolute action on the part of unions. Since many workers face these problems, the union should have wide support to take action. A little research on the part of the union leadership and activists can convince all workers to support corrective action. Too often the cause of respiratory problems of individual workers are not seen as affecting all workers. Affected workers become isolated.

A broad approach is needed; one aimed at getting all workers to support those workers who are most affected, can give a strong hand to the union leaders in forcing the employers to listen to the union.

Workers without union protection may have to utilize outside medical and scientific professionals to prove their case. Groups of workers will have to seek publicity for their plight from local print and television media. This can be achieved by contacting the local tuberculosis, heart and other organizations concerned with respiratory health and often very sympathic to the plight of disabled workers.

Of course contacting a labor union for help is the best idea. This could be the catalyst for union organization.

If the irritation comes from an industrial solvent, the problem can be solved rather easily by switching solvents. Often, one solvent can be changed for another and that can solve the problem. There are many safe, nontoxic industrial solvents.

For industrial oil mists the employer must provide a worker with a fume-free environment. This can be done by fully closing the area, and exhausting the fumes to the outside environment. If the problem is acute a way can be found to provide an adequate supply of fresh air or to immediately close that part of the workplace that is causing the problem. And, of course, there is that possibility self-contained breathing respirators might be necessary.

Finally, the system may need some special cleansing attention. That would require dumping the existing coolant and steam cleaning all floors, machines, tanks, and coolant reprocessing equipment and removing all chips, biological growths and other debris. All leaks in hydraulic systems should also be repaired.

Ventilation is key to all workplaces. Exposure measurements and medical surveillance of workers is necessary on a continuing basis. The union must make sure that employers conduct these activities and that qualified industrial hygienists do the work.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org