Rows of empty seats stretched across the Thomas Murphy Ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center.
The giant room in which the keynote addresses for National Safety Council Congress & Expo were held was hardly full as leaders in the safety industry gathered for another featured session, this one on occupational illness.
“I’m struck by the numbers in the room for occupational illness compared to previous sessions like this,” said Colin Duncan, CEO of BST and the moderator of the occupational keynote session. “That speaks to the problem.”
Occupational illnesses account for about 10 times more work-related deaths than on-the-job injuries and cost billions of dollars, yet receive significantly less attention.
Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, attributes this problem in part to the difficulty of identifying and tracking occupational disease and to the complex regulatory process.
“The problem is massive and the impacts are huge,” Seminario said. “Our systems are not set up to capture this. Most diseases aren’t recognized by physicians.”
And efforts to regulate the known causes of such diseases are drawn out; the new standard on silica still hasn’t passed after decades of attempts.
Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels called the process “onerous.”
“It takes us decades,” Michaels said. “OSHA standards are weak or nonexistent.”
More often, companies are left to set their own occupational exposure limits, Michaels said. And, while that may work for the large chemical companies, it leaves small companies with limited resources at a loss.