A medical clinic in Wisconsin has been caught recklessly exposing its employees to deadly asbestos for years, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A January 3 press release says the Monroe Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, violated federal regulations by failing to inform workers of their exposure risk and provide required protection, despite knowing of the asbestos contamination since 2008.
The clinic was slapped with one willful and 11 serious citations for violating federal workplace safety regulations around asbestos — serious meaning the violation could cause illness or injury, and willful meaning “the employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement (purposeful disregard) or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.” Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees, something the Monroe clinic clearly failed to do.
The reality is, though, that knowingly exposing people asbestos — an insidious carcinogen that kills nearly 200,000 people globally every year — amounts to more than just regulatory violations. This is a human rights violation.
Exposing Workers Means Exposing Their Families, Too
Asbestos causes lung cancer and incurable mesothelioma, as well as a number of other chronic and deadly diseases and cancers, but most people won’t show symptoms of asbestos-caused disease until 10-50 years after being exposed. For exposed workers, this means decades of having to worry if they’ll contract a deadly disease. This brings concern with every twinge of pain, every cough — and not just concern for their own health, but for that of their families as well.
Secondhand exposure is a risk these negligent employers likely don’t even think about, but it kills the children and spouses of asbestos-exposed workers far too often. Asbestos fibers are microscopic, and gather on clothing in an often invisible dust. Unless provided with protective gear and a decontamination area — which the Monroe clinic failed to do — workers carry home asbestos on their clothes and tragically expose their children and families through loving hugs.
The worst part about the scourge of asbestos-caused diseases is that they’re entirely preventable — prevent asbestos exposure, and you prevent asbestos-caused diseases. Doctors and scientists have known this for a century, but its use persists in some industries where profit is prioritized over public health. This is precisely the reason health and safety regulations are so necessary — and why Trump’s cabinet choices are so concerning in this regard.
When Profits Trump People
Trump’s own anti-regulation, pro-business beliefs are well known. Not only did he tout this attitude on the campaign trail, he’s got a sordid history of violating OSHA regulations and putting workers at risk to save a buck — and a history of lawsuits to back it up. In the 1980s, Trump fought a class-action lawsuit brought by demolition workers who had been contracted to clear the way for Trump Tower in New York. The workers cited working in “choking clouds of asbestos dust without protective equipment,” among other subpar conditions.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, Trump’s cabinet directly reflects his tendency to prioritize profits over people.
Trump’s pick to head the Department of Labor, which operates OSHA, is fast food executive Andrew Pudzer, whose corporation runs Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. Pudzer’s history of opposing regulations on business and labor has inspired serious concern from labor leaders. A.F.L.-C.I.O. President Richard L. Trumka called Mr. Puzder “a man whose business record is defined by fighting against working people,” according to the New York Times. Puzder’s track record draws into question the future of regulatory capacity from Labor Department agencies like OSHA, if his nomination is confirmed.
Scott Pruitt, selected by Trump to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is — if possible — ever more explicitly anti-regulation. On his own LinkedIn profile, the former Oklahoma Attorney General boasts about his efforts in opposition of the very agency he’s been tapped to run, describing himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” A 2014 investigation by the New York Times found that, “Energy industry lobbyists drafted letters for [Pruitt] to send to the EPA the Interior Department, the Office of Management and Budget and even President Obama,” demonstrating his strong ties and clear loyalty to the business community.
Risking Irreversible Rollbacks
The asbestos exposure at the Monroe Clinic is a prime example of why regulations on business — and the ability to enforce them — are so crucial to protecting the American public. The incoming administration, however is promising regulatory rollbacks that would cause irreversible damage to public health and the environment by stripping power from the agencies who implement and enforce these protective measures. Trump, during the campaign, went so far as to say his administration would “get rid of [the EPA] in almost every form.”
Trump’s image as a business luminary stoked his popularity among voters concerned about a changing economy, so it makes sense that he would fill his cabinet with others who prioritize business innovation and growth. And while environmental and occupational regulations like those implemented by the EPA and OSHA may seem a hindrance to profits in the short-term, the reality is that innovation and growth become unsustainable when your business practices cause costly lawsuits. The massive amount of mesothelioma litigation we see these days is evidence that this shift is already taking place in industries that use asbestos.
If we want economic growth to be sustainable, and truly of benefit to the nation, the business community — and the political leaders loyal to it — needs to work in tandem with health and safety based regulations, not in opposition to them.