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Dangerous chemicals at work: U.S. lacks proper oversight

Hazardous chemicals in the workplace put workers exposed to them at risk of injury and death. To be sure, terrible explosions like the one at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, are exceptional.

But as we discussed in our June 28 post, the problem of dangerous chemicals at job sites is a pervasive one. Maryland has had plenty of incidents of its own, including six deaths since 2001 from exposure to such chemicals.

In this post, let’s look at a federal program designed to provide warnings about hazardous chemicals. The program is supposed to implement a federal law called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

The program has been around since 1986. But Reuters reported last week that it has failed to provide sufficient oversight of facilities that pose hazardous chemical risks.

Under the law, facilities that store such chemicals on their premises are supposed to keep an inventory of them. This inventory or list is then to be filed with appropriate state and local agencies.

In practice, however, these facilities often fall short of their reporting requirements. And government authorities often do not follow up with audits to verify the accuracy of the reports that are submitted.

The types of dangerous chemicals that are kept on site vary from workplace to workplace. They can include such things as lead, diesel fuel, chlorine gas or sulfuric acid. Fires and explosions are only some of the potential consequences when they are handled incorrectly.

The common challenge, though, is not only to do a better job of reporting on their existence. It is do a better job of handling them safely so that they do not put workers at undue risk of injury or death from toxic chemicals.

Source: Reuters, "Exclusive: U.S. system for flagging hazarous chemicals is widely flawed," M.B. Pell, Ryan McNeil and Salem Gebrekidan, August 10, 2013

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