Derailed train cars full of toxic chemicals created an environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. Over a million gallons of water and hundreds of tons of soil were contaminated, and residents have real concerns about air quality and potential impacts on their long-term health.
Many of the chemicals spilled or burned – including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol, benzene and dioxins – can cause cancer, respiratory irritation, skin rashes, nausea and vomiting. We know about these health effects in part because of safety data sheets (SDSs). SDSs are created by the chemical’s manufacturer or importer and provide vital information on toxicity, flash point, storage guidelines, exposure control and what to do in the event of a spill or leak.
In construction and other industries, employers rely on SDSs to choose the controls, administrative measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) that will protect workers from harmful chemical exposures. OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard gives workers the right to know about the chemicals they could be exposed to and requires employers to train workers about those hazards.
“Employers and workers need to have a full and accurate picture of a chemical’s potential hazards,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Without that transparency, workers could suffer irreversible health effects and contractors trying to do the right thing to protect workers could unknowingly fail to do so.”
Incomplete SDS Hazards a Common Problem
A recent report by the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), Obstructing the Right to Know, found that in a sampling of over 650 manufacturer SDSs, 30 percent were incomplete. Missing was information about cancer risk, reproductive risks and other critical hazards.
Even more concerning is that many of the chemicals with incomplete SDSs are well-established as being extremely toxic. Ten of the chemicals studied are included on the EPA’s list of high-priority chemicals being evaluated under the reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
“Looking at the 34 prioritized substances … the findings are disturbing: 88 percent of the substances had at least one SDS file with missing hazards,” notes the BGA report.
For example, an SDS for vinyl chloride – a known human carcinogen and the primary chemical of concern in the East Palestine train derailment – failed to mention cancer risk at all. An SDS for benzene – a toxic chemical that can cause cancer, convulsions and death – listed only skin and eye irritation and a warning not to swallow or inhale it.
OSHA’s Role in Protecting Workers from Chemical Hazards
The EPA has made painfully slow progress on its list of priority chemicals. OSHA hasn’t done much better, having issued standards for only three chemicals (chromium, silica and beryllium) in the past 25 years. OSHA has been largely hamstrung on chemical hazards since it failed to ban asbestos in 1992, when an appeals court ruled that economic and technical factors also had to be taken into account.
With a specific standard for only a handful of the estimated 80,000 chemicals used in the U.S., OSHA’s HazCom standard and its SDS requirements are left to do most of the heavy lifting. And that’s a problem, because OSHA allows manufacturers to create their own SDSs and doesn’t routinely check to see if they are accurate.
In fact, OSHA doesn’t even require SDSs to be accurate; they are simply required to exist. The agency states that companies “may” (note: not “must”) use the National Toxicology Program or the International Agency for Research on Cancer when listing whether a chemical causes cancer.
“Allowing manufacturers to disregard hazard assessments by two authoritative bodies and to conduct their own hazard assessment of products in which they have significant financial investment is a form of self-regulation that will undoubtedly compromise transparency, accurate and timely disclosure of information and ultimately workplace health and safety,” said EarthJustice, the National Resources Defense Council and the BGA in comments jointly submitted to OSHA in 2016.
Addressing Risk from Hazardous Chemicals
Both the EPA and OSHA must take further action to ensure that employers, workers and consumers are accurately informed of the full spectrum of risks associated with a given chemical. Only then can employers fulfill their duty to protect workers’ health on the job. Only then can companies and consumers seek out alternatives that are less hazardous. Only then can we hold companies fully accountable when toxic spills poison our environment and water systems and endanger entire families and communities.