Work-related disease in America takes an estimated 50,000 lives each year — more than gun violence or motor-vehicle accidents. Hundreds of thousands more are sickened by job-related exposures.
And yet occupational illness — legally sanctioned, in effect, by the United States government — remains one of the least-understood, least-examined subjects in this country. In “Unequal Risk,” a series 18 months in the making that featured eight major stories, three videos, two interactive graphics and a national radio segment, the Center for Public Integrity revealed the enormous human and economic toll exacted by toxic exposures in the workplace.
Many of the diseases triggered by these exposures — cancers, lung conditions, nervous-system disorders — are preventable. As the Center explained, the epidemic “isn’t merely the product of neglect or misconduct by employers. It’s the predictable result of a bifurcated system of hazard regulation — one for the general public and another, far weaker, for workers.” The Center performed unprecedented data analyses to document this disparate treatment.
In the first group of stories, from June through September, the Center’s Jim Morris, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Maryam Jameel, Eleanor Bell and Yue Qiu showed readers and viewers the human cost of weak regulation. That price includes Chris Johnson, a 40-year-old bricklayer who, on paper, has only five years to live because he developed the lung disease silicosis from a dusty renovation job, and bricklayer Scott Whipps, who died from the disease at 38.
In 1974, federal health officials warned that the workplace exposure limit for silica — the ubiquitous mineral that causes silicosis — was dangerously lenient. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration finally proposed a stricter limit in 2011 and didn’t complete the rulemaking until this spring.
Silica isn’t an outlier. Most of OSHA’s 470 exposure limits are, by the agency’s own admission, hopelessly outdated. The vast majority of chemicals made or used in the U.S. have no limits at all. OSHA, Congress, industry and the White House all bear responsibility. And the impact doesn’t stop at workers: Toxic exposures on the job can injure unborn children, too, as we illustrated in one of our stories.
The Center filed multiple Freedom of Information Act and state public-information requests and analyzed several dense datasets for the series. One analysis, undertaken with a former OSHA official, estimated the often-stunning cancer risks at the maximum legal exposure levels for various carcinogens. Another showed how often the agency found high levels of certain hazardous substances in the workplace, results that required heavy lifting on an OSHA database that didn’t come in a shape to make such comparisons. The Center also tallied sudden deaths from a chemical commonly found in paint strippers, detailing a longstanding problem that regulators missed — or ignored — for decades.
The second group of “Unequal Risk” stories, in November and December, revealed the daunting problems workers face after they get sick. We showed how victims of occupational illness have little chance of success in state workers’ compensation systems larded with industry-friendly rules. We profiled Sandra Cooper, whose husband worked in a Pennsylvania factory and died of what his doctors diagnosed as a chemical-related condition. It took Cooper four-and-a-half years to win a claim on her husband’s behalf, a minor miracle in itself. She is still trying to recoup medical costs and lost wages two years after he died.
We laid bare systemic flaws in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program, designed to aid former nuclear-weapons workers who developed cancer or other diseases after toiling in some of the most hazardous environments imaginable. We dug into an arcane process known as dose reconstruction and showed how it has kept workers like Paul Brogdon, an ex-security guard who has what he believes to be radiation-induced prostate cancer, from getting compensation and medical coverage. We showed that claims involving chemical exposures hit roadblocks that include a review by toxicologist who almost never agrees that the substance in question can cause the worker’s disease.
In the final installment, we profiled Kris Penny, a 39-year-old Floridian dying of mesothelioma, a rare cancer virtually always linked to asbestos exposure. He is a victim of what experts predicted at a conference 25 years ago: a “third wave” of disease as workers updating infrastructure or renovating buildings disturb old asbestos. Hard-bitten litigators said the 11-minute Penny video, “Time Bomb,” brought them to tears.
Reaction to “Unequal Risk” came swiftly. An official with the Environmental Protection Agency, considering a ban on the paint-stripping solvent methylene chloride, reached out to the Center for guidance. Worker safety advocates pointed to our coverage as they pushed back against congressional efforts to further delay a silica rule that would impose a stricter workplace exposure limit. Professors at Columbia University, the University of Connecticut and George Washington University said they would use our stories in their classrooms. Morris, a Center managing editor and writer, has been invited to address the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at its annual meeting in April.
“The conclusions are jarring in and of themselves,” Columbia Journalism Review wrote of the series. “But what makes them even more frightening is the knowledge that such conditions exist — indeed, they’re often legal — in one of the most advanced countries in the world.”