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Letting Workers Know About Hazards : Legislation Splits Business, Earns Union Backing

November 08, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

Frank Carsner's conversation is disjointed and rambling, the result of brain damage that drove his IQ from a gifted 130 down to a below-average 96. His vision is clouded by cataracts. Asthma strangles his breathing. He has had tumors on his legs and eyes and difficulty moving his limbs.

Carsner's doctors say the 46-year-old man's disabilities are the result of his work as a master painter at a Portland, Ore., truck plant.

From 1973 to 1981, his workday was spent awash in toxic solvents known to pose a risk to the human nervous system. For much of the period, he worked daily with paints containing isocyanates--chemicals that harden enamel coatings, but that also have long been linked by medical studies to respiratory damage in humans.

At the time, though, the hazards were unknown to Carsner and his co-workers. As with many industrial employees, it was not until a colleague died--and lawsuits and investigations ensued--that the painters began to recognize the causal relationship between a day's work and disease.

"We knew nothing about isocyanates or neurotoxins," Carsner recalled. "This was all Greek to us then."

The toll that ignorance took on his life and health has made Carsner an intense supporter of legislation pending in Congress that would require the federal government to notify hundreds of thousands of workers of life-threatening hazards they face in the workplace.

"I wouldn't be terminal and a lot of other people wouldn't be terminal if it were implemented," said Carsner, founder and president of Portland's Toxic Victims Assn.

Over the objections of some business groups--but with the support of lobbyists for businesses that make heavy use of potentially hazardous materials, including the petroleum and chemical industries--the House narrowly approved worker notification legislation in mid-October.

The bill would set up a board, under the auspices of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, to review medical studies and identify chemical and physical exposures that pose proven health risks to workers.

NIOSH would notify employees exposed to those risks in current or former jobs, and their employers would be required to pay for screening, counseling and medical treatment.

Proponents of the measure estimate that more than 300,000 workers are disabled annually by exposure to health hazards on the job--a figure they predict would drop as notification campaigns put pressure on employers to improve workplace safety.

Even if the legislation is approved by the Senate later this year, as is expected, the White House has threatened to veto the new program.

Republican legislators and business critics say the notification plan would impose needless, costly regulation on industry and unleash a slew of lawsuits, despite prohibitions in the bill against using the notices as the basis of litigation.

'No Information'

"We see it as just duplication," said Terry Hill, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, which estimates that it will cost firms $632 per employee to provide medical testing mandated by the legislation and up to $32,000 for each worker who leaves a job because of toxic risks.

"We call it OSHA II," he said--a reference to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose inspection and regulatory programs, the bill's foes say, adequately guard workers against exposure to health hazards.

Medical experts, however, say warning workers of occupational hazards is a proven means of preventing illness, or at least speeding its detection.

Proponents argue that a notification program could help physicians with little training in occupational disease to recognize symptoms that they might otherwise ignore.

And while workers, under "right-to-know" laws, now can demand health information about chemicals they use at work, advocates say a notification program will overcome employees' demonstrated reluctance to ask questions or confront their supervisors.

"Right now what's happening is that these people have absolutely no information, they're developing diseases and they don't know where to go to get medical help," said Margaret Seminario, the AFL-CIO's associate director for occupational health and safety.

Only a handful of notification and screening campaigns have been conducted in the United States. The most extensive is a 6-year-old program in Port Allegany, Pa., for former employees of a Pittsburgh Corning Corp. plant that manufactured asbestos products in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Initial studies financed by the American Flint Glass Workers Union found widespread evidence among the plant's work force of asbestosis, a scarring condition in the lungs that can be a precursor to cancer.

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