It’s safe to say the steel industry is a cornerstone of the U.S. economy. Not only does it directly or indirectly employ more than 1 million Americans, it ships billions of dollars’ worth of goods each year and provides what is, along with concrete, one of the most essential building materials on the planet.
It stands to follow that the laborers who produce this stuff should be rigorously protected from the many hazards found throughout America’s mills and foundries. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued fines against the second largest steel producer in the country for the (entirely preventable) act of exposing its workers to asbestos. Asbestos is a known carcinogen for which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stated there is “no safe level” of exposure. And yet, Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel has slated several infractions within the past few years alone.
Responding to an employee complaint, OSHA uncovered 2 exposure incidents that occurred earlier this year — within only a few weeks of each other. In the first, 5 steel workers were instructed by the company to remove and replace packing materials that contained asbestos. In the second, 2 workers burned and removed a section of pipe that was later found to contain asbestos.
Following the investigation, U.S. Steel was charged with failing to establish a regulated environment and failing to inform its workers of the presence of asbestos. What’s really frustrating about this is that the company was cited for the exact same infraction back in 2011. OSHA also claims U.S. Steel failed to implement engineering controls, training procedures, and managerial oversight to prevent further the exposure, all of which contributed to a $170,000 fine levied against the company, which, let’s be honest, isn’t much — at least not enough to encourage any change in procedure.
"Once again, we have found U.S. Steel Corp. failed to protect its employees from the serious risks of asbestos exposure,” said Christopher Robinson, director of OSHA's Pittsburgh Area Office. He went on to say:
“Breathing airborne asbestos fibers can cause lung damage that often progresses to disability and possible death. Given the potential danger to the health of its workers, the company must take immediate steps needed to avoid its employees' prolonged exposure to asbestos.”
Big Problems in Steel Country
While the incidents in questions are tragic in their own right — if only for the health problems they are likely to cause victims down the road — they highlight a larger problem that the entire state of Pennsylvania knows all too well.
The Keystone State is historically one of the top manufacturing centers in the country, with key hubs centered around the more populated regions of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And with major manufacturing dating back to before the Civil War, the state has had plenty of time to introduce lethal, unregulated toxins like asbestos into the area. For example, Allegheny County, which is where most of the state’s steel mills can be found, continues to suffer the largest number of asbestos-related deaths in the state, with more than 1,600 between 1999 and 2013, according to the EWG Action Fund. Statewide, that figure jumps to more than 14,000, making Pennsylvania one of the most asbestos-contaminated states in the country.
It’s no surprise, then, that Allegheny County suffers one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the country. Mesothelioma is a particularly deadly form of cancer that is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos, but it is just one among several respiratory diseases associated with a naturally occurring mineral that has found a special home in steel country.
On the other side of the state, there’s the Philadelphia suburb of Ambler, which has been nicknamed the “town that asbestos built.” Once a major hub for the global asbestos manufacturing industry, it is now the oldest and largest asbestos waste disposal site in the U.S., with asbestos-related diseases afflicting the local population at a rate unmatched in the rest of the U.S. So whether you’re in Steeler country or hoagie country, you have an asbestos problem.
1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back
Whereas most developed nations have outlawed asbestos, it remains entirely legal to be used in production in the U.S.
Efforts to ban asbestos nationwide have faced serious setbacks over the years, with large corporations and their well-financed lobbying arms successfully pushing back against legislation that attempts to regulate its use or facilitate compensation to its victims.
President Obama recently took a step forward in updating the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which could pave the way to more stringent EPA oversight (and potentially even an outright ban) of asbestos. However, in the Pennsylvania state legislature, the pending Fairness in Claims and Transparency (FACT) Act may work to counteract a lot of that good by forcing victims of asbestos exposure to undergo a series of legal hurdles in order to file lawsuits or claim compensation.
According to the WG Action Fund, that bill, which was introduced last year, would allow defendants in asbestos suits to essentially delay litigation, with the tacit goal of waiting until victims succumb to their illnesses before going to court.
So while legislative attempts to control the scourge of asbestos move in fits and starts, the mineral in question lies in wait, dispersed throughout our critical infrastructure and manufacturing centers, always affecting the least deserving and least responsible among us. With such a rich history of producing the stuff, Pennsylvania is often viewed as battleground state in the war against asbestos. But, for the time being, the war appears to be a stalemate.