Outdated OSHA rules fail to shield tech workers from toxic exposure

Workers in manufacturing facilities across the tech sector are at increasing risk from exposure to hazardous chemicals thanks to federal regulations that are woefully outdated and a business community that has failed to take worker safety seriously.

Former Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Director David Michaels estimates that 90 percent of the permissible exposure levels (PELs) mandated today are based on industry standards set in the 1960s and desperately need to be updated. Workers today – including those in the tech sector – are exposed to chemical hazards in ways that regulators could not have imagined at the time the regulations were created.

Outdated Standards Hit Tech Hard

Independent research backs up Michaels’ claim. A recent study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that OSHA chemical exposure limits fail to protect workers in many cases and that safe exposure levels are far below what should be required by employers.

In the case of ethylbenzene, for example, OSHA allows an exposure level of 100 parts per million, while the researchers concluded that serious adverse health effects start at 0.06 parts per million.

Is Ethylbenzene exposure dangerous?

A known carcinogen, Ethylbenzene is a petroleum-based compound that is used in a wide variety of industrial settings. Pregnant women exposed to these chemicals are even more sensitive to exposure. A study by the International Society for Autism Research found that mothers of autistic children were twice as likely to work in occupations where they are exposed to neurotoxins like Ethylbenzene, about 14.4%, compared to mothers of controls, about 7.2%.

And that is where many tech workers have found themselves. In addition to their own illnesses from chemical exposure, spouses and children of workers have been affected, as well.

In factories where workers build lasers and computer components like semiconductors, female workers experience higher rates of pregnancy complications and a range of birth defects, including autism spectrum disorders and developmental delays to physical abnormalities. The children of male workers fathered experience higher rates of structural heart defects. Families have filed numerous lawsuits against technology and chemical companies since 1997, including numerous lawsuits related to birth defects from maternal exposure to harmful substances.

OSHA has failed workers for a variety of reasons, including:

  • OSHA typically takes more than 10 years to issue new chemical exposure standards and has issued only 32 new standards in 50 years.
  • Penalties for breaching these standards are inadequate. OSHA’s maximum penalty for a serious violation is merely $15,625 per violation.

Until regulations come in line with truly safe levels of exposure to toxics, workers will continue to get sick, and they will continue to bear children with life-changing birth defects.

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