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Toxic chemicals in the workplace: Putting millions of workers at risk

Posted by SAFER States on May 8, 2012

Nearly each day, millions of workers are exposed to toxic chemicals which threaten their health.

Nearly each day, four million people in the United States go to work as janitors, cleaners, maids, housekeepers, landscaping and groundskeeping workers, pesticide handlers and other maintenance occupations. Over 3% of the workforce is employed in these jobs, which are among the lowest paying jobs in the country.1 But the below-average wages aren't the worst thing about the job: these people are exposed to toxic chemicals in their workplace on a daily basis.

According to workers' compensation data, six out of every 100 custodians have a lost-time injury every year due to chemical exposure.2 The majority of injuries involve eye irritation and burns, skin irritation and burns, or breathing chemical fumes. And these are just the short-term effects.

The chemicals used to clean our schools, statehouses, libraries and office buildings in every town and city often contain caustic toxic chemicals linked with asthma, cancer, respiratory issues, hormone disruption, endocrine system issues and other negative health effects. Just the products used to clean commercial PVC floors contain a long list of toxic chemicals associated with all manner of health issues.3 And the problems don't stop there.

Nearly each day, another four million people in the United States go to work as retail salespersons and cashiers.4 Many of those workers spend their days handling register receipts—receipts that are often coated with a thin layer of bisphenol-A (BPA) coating, which may be transferred to fingers, and then onto food and into the mouth. BPA is associated with health effects such as hormone disruption and reproductive issues.

Nearly each day, over 400,000 people in the United States go to work in salons and spas as hairdressers, hairstylists, cosmetologists, manicurists and pedicurists. There, they are exposed to formaldehyde and many other chemicals which are associated with respiratory issues, endocrine system issues, skin problems and headaches.

This means that some of the laborers on the lowest part of the pay scale—workers who affect many of our lives each day—are in danger of harming themselves, and their families, physically because of the toxic chemicals they work with daily. Many of these workers have no choice but to take the jobs that put them in harm's way.

What is being done?

Green cleaning laws to help keep janitorial staff healthy

Some states are recognizing that it is unjust to expose workers to avoidable toxic chemicals. Eleven states have passed laws promoting "green cleaning," replacing toxic cleaning chemicals with safer alternatives. Generally, these laws set rules over what can be used in state-owned buildings or over cleaning chemicals that are purchased by the state. This is not insignificant, as each state owns many buildings including schools and large buildings where government is run.

Green cleaning laws look to protect the children and employees who work in these buildings, as well as to protect the laborers who come into direct contact with the chemicals.

Illinois passed one of the earliest green cleaning laws with its 2007 Green Cleaning Schools Act.5 The law requires that safe cleaning and maintenance products be used in public and non-public schools throughout the state.

This year, advocacy groups in Maryland joined with the State Education Association, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to help pass a green cleaning law with nearly unanimous, bipartisan support (173 yays, 5 nays over both houses). The new law will strengthen Maryland's green cleaning purchasing within schools, and will put into place science-based health standards for products.

"We owe those who work in our state the safest and healthiest workplaces we can possibly provide. Where safer alternatives exist, there is no excuse for putting the health and welfare of workers at risk by making them work with completely avoidable toxic chemicals."

– Statement by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Removing BPA from receipts to change health risks for cashiers.

Last year, the state of Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a law banning BPA from register receipts, starting in 2013. "This is one more important step in removing toxic chemicals from our environment," said state Representative Richard Roy, House Chairman of the Environment Committee. "It is incumbent upon us to do all we can to clear our living spaces, especially for workers and our children."

A couple of states have followed in Connecticut's footsteps and introduced BPA in receipts bills in the 2012 legislative session: Illinois introduced HB5373, and New York introduced AB212. With bills prohibiting BPA from register receipts, these states are clearing the way for a safer workplace for tens of thousands of cashiers.

Getting toxic chemicals out of nail and beauty salons.

As we discussed on this site in March, there are many dangerous chemicals in salons which threaten the health of stylists, manicurists and the like. In the absence of federal oversight of chemicals like formaldehyde in cosmetics, some states are attempting to take on regulation of these products. This year, the state of New York introduced a bill which would prohibit the sales of nail products containing formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate—chemicals which are associated with respiratory trouble, endocrine and central nervous system disruption.

Labor groups backing environmental health changes

In many states, labor unions are Safer States partners and are working hard to get toxic chemicals out of work environments. Many of the workers we have discussed here are poor, minority, immigrant populations who are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs, and groups representing labor are speaking up on their behalf. Labor groups are putting laws governing toxic chemicals in the workplace at that top of their agendas nationwide.

MassCOSH, or the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, is a top example of an organization that is working hard on workers' behalves. Through grants and outreach, they have worked to educate labor unions about toxic chemicals and safer alternatives. As a result, Labor Councils representing over 150,000 workers and 6 unions in Massachusetts have begun to take steps to make changes including requesting safer alternatives to toxic cleaning products.

"MassCOSH has been an invaluable partner in helping to improve worker safety in Massachusetts. Their Environmental Justice for Cleaning Workers Campaign has brought to light the high asthma rates and increased heart attack rate among cleaning workers, and has begun to move the needle toward safety. For instance, their work with SEIU 615 resulted in Logan Airport's cleaning contractor eliminating the most hazardous chemicals from use at the airport."

– Cindy Luppi, The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow.

Workers have noticed changes in their workplaces due to MassCOSH's work. "When I worked at the Ritz, nobody had received training in the use of chemicals or the equipment needed to protect them," said Nelson Pineda, a janitor who cleans luxury condominium complexes and a member of SEIU Local 615. "But when MassCOSH put out a report on the working conditions, the company began to give training and the needed protective equipment."6

MassCOSH's work is just one example of what is happening across the country: groups advocating for the health of workers who help to enact state laws or company policies that will help to protect worker health. In the meantime, where is federal government oversight?

During a protest in 2010 against the toxic chemicals in the workplace, Mike Chavez, political coordinator of SEIU Local 1877 in California said it best. Many of the chemicals used for cleaning are outlawed in penitentiaries and schools, he said. "How is it that we're protecting criminals from these chemicals and we're exposing the general public, in this case our janitors, to them?"7


1 Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011 (pdf). Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor.
2 The Right to Know: School Custodial Maintenance Workers (pdf). American Federation of Teachers, Health and Safety Program.
3 PVC Flooring & Toxic Cleaning Products in Schools. Center for Health, Environment & Justice.
4 Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011 (pdf). Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor.
5 HB0895 text. State of Illinois
6 Environmental Justice for Cleaning Workers Campaign. Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
7 Janitors Protest Albertsons' Use of Allegedly Toxic Chemicals. HildaZacarias.com.

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