The Trump EPA reaches a shocking new low in failing to protect workers under TSCA

Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

Just when I thought EPA putting workers’ health at risk by shirking its responsibilities under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) couldn’t get any worse, it has.

The notion that worker protection can or should be relegated to the equivalent of a shock avoidance experiment is deeply offensive if not outright immoral.

In its risk evaluations of existing chemicals (see our comments here and here) and its reviews of  new chemicals (see our comments here) entering the market, EPA has found ways bordering on the diabolical to avoid identifying or to understate the extent and nature of risks to workers making or using those chemicals.  The agency:

  • Simply assumes without evidence that workers will wear fully effective personal protective equipment (respirators and gloves).
  • Distorts OSHA regulations and claims they apply where they don’t.
  • Treats voluntary instruments that impose no binding requirements as if they were mandatory.
  • Assumes that if the average worker’s exposure does not exceed its acceptable risk level, then it doesn’t matter if there are exceedances for those workers most highly exposed.
  • Has unquestioningly accepted and used manufacturers’ undocumented data on workplace exposure levels even when data from more authoritative sources show far higher exposures.
  • And has adopted a cancer risk benchmark that is as much as two orders of magnitude more permissive of risk than warranted under TSCA.

All this despite TSCA’s express identification of workers as a “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulation” that warrants special protection.

As appalling as all of this is, it just got worse.

In EPA’s latest draft risk evaluation – for carbon tetrachloride – EPA argues that, even in the absence of any mandatory protections, workers can be “persuaded” to avoid exposures to this highly toxic chemical on their own — by first suffering the ill effects of those exposures.  I kid you not.

EPA states (p. 171, emphasis added):

[C]arbon tetrachloride is a skin irritant and sensitizer, which suggests that workers are persuaded on their own (in addition to the workplace industrial hygiene program and OSHA regulations) to wear gloves when handling the chemical.

There are so many things wrong with this.  The notion that worker protection can or should be relegated to the equivalent of a shock avoidance experiment is deeply offensive if not outright immoral.

I have heard this argument made by the chemical industry over the years.  For it to appear in an official draft document written by a federal agency charged with protecting health should shock us all.  And if the indignity of the argument doesn’t shock you, the effect of the mindset it represents on the well-being of workers surely should.

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