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Occupational Disease: A Period of Convalescence or an Era of Epidemic

Occupational Disease: A Period of Convalescence or an Era of Epidemic

Workers' Compensation

The National Institute of Occupation­ an Safety and Health has estimated that this year industrial accidents and disease would result in the death of as many as 100,000 persons and in the injury and illness of more than five million. A recent survey indicates that occupational illness alone would affect 10.9 out of every 100 full-time workers in 1975.

The "Hidden Plague" and Other Epidemics

A nationwide survey by the Stanford University School of Medicine of men and women who work in hospital operating rooms demonstrates that long-term exposure to anesthetic gases increases the risk of liver disease and birth defects in the children of personnel exposed. It has been estimated that 50,000 people regularly work in operating rooms.

Dr. Hans Weill, director of occupation­al lung disease research at the Tulane University Medical Center, has concluded a research project indicating that silicosis deaths may be linked to sandblasting. About 70,000 workers in the United States are believed to be using sand­blasting materials that expose them to free crystalline silica or quartz.

A recent Federal study shows a link between inorganic arsenic compounds and a high rate of lung and lymphatic cancer. The New Jersey Department of Labor and Industry has estimated that 115,000 employees at 1,300 industrial plants in New Jersey might be exposed to forms of inorganic arsenic. An unknown number of individuals in agriculture also are exposed to this hazard.

As a result of the "Vinyl Chloride Scandal" of 1973-1974, the use of vinyl chloride in household sprays was discontinued last spring after it was disclosed that the chemical had caused a rare form of liver cancer in industrial workers. Unfortunately, Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, Director of the Laboratory of Environ­ mental Sciences of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, has reported to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment that "Findings indicate that vinyl chloride may be mutagenic, as well as carcinogenic." Tests conducted in New York and Sweden reveal that vinyl chloride "may affect the strands of material that carry the continuity of the human race from generation to generation."

Industrial workers are not the only ones who run the risks. Dr. Selikoff's Paterson Study of asbestos workers, which was a mortality experience of 933 men who had worked between 1941 and 1945 at the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company [UNARCO] in Paterson, was expanded to include members of the workers' immediate families. This was done in view of the fact that the workers brought home dust on their clothing, in their hair, and in their cars. The results of this study indicate a "Hidden Plague." Abnormal X-rays compatible with asbestosis were discovered in 38.4% of the members of the immediate families.

Scientists fear "epidemics of cancer" in the future if the use of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) remains virtually unchecked. Scientists regard "exposure to other known and suspected environmental carcinogens in the environment as involuntary and unknowing, constituting a gargantuan experiment on uninformed human guinea pigs."

State Relinquishes Power—The Cure?

On April 1, 1975, the State of New Jersey conceded total jurisdiction over the safety and health field to the Federal Government. Enabling" legislation to permit the State of New Jersey to regulate and enforce occupational health standards was stalled in the State Assembly's Labor Committee.

Proponents of the State plan indicated that the State's model program, in effect since January 26, 1973, contained more stringent standards than did the Federal program. On the other side, proponents of the Federal program, which is administered under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor, declared that more national uniformity of standards and enforcement is essential. OSHA presently employs 20 inspectors in New Jersey and plans to hire an additional 52, for a total force of 72. The State inspectors numbered 125. OSHA maintains that their inspectors have "more clout."

OSHA plans to increase its financial expenditures in New Jersey. The State of New Jersey previously budgeted $2.3 million and received an additional Federal contribution of $1.3 million. OSHA plans to finance its New Jersey operation at its prior contribution rate of $1.2 million, without any financing from the State.

OSHA has been bombarded with criticism throughout the country. The Executive Council of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. issued a detailed study criticizing OSHA. It stated, "President Ford's proposed fiscal 1976 budget for OSHA merely allows for increased inflation. 'It does not provide for the expansion or strengthening of programs. It is grossly inadequate."

The principal complaint of the A.F.L.- C.I.O. against the agency is that it has been dilatory in promulgating health standards. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, was established by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. NIOSH is the Federal agency responsible for identifying occupational safety and health hazards and for recommending changes in the regulations limiting them. Dr. Stanley C. Mazaleski of NIOSH, in aa affidavit filed in January 1975 in the Federal Court, Washington, D.C., states that for the last nine months, he has repeatedly complained to high-ranking officials about the Institute's alleged "failure to take appropriate action regarding the industrial use of certain carcinogens." Dr. Mazaleski, who has a doctorate in preventive medicine and public health, further stated that NIOSH had "downplayed the risk of cancer to American workers and those living near some industrial locations and had not accepted some proposed changes. . . ." NIOSH, he said, "In several cases forced the American workers and public to run excessive risks of serious personal harm after extended exposure to various substances as long as there seems to be an absence of overwhelming data showing clear risks."

Another A.F.L.-C.I.O. criticism is that political considerations rather than workers' health guides OSHA. This has also been charged by The Health Research Group, one of the organizations established by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The Group charged "that the Labor Department had failed to establish new standards to reduce the danger from such diseases as cancer . . . for 5 million workers in order to encourage campaign contributions to President Nixon from business." "This . . . inertia can only be described as murder in the workplace."

The Classic Battle—Labor v. Industry

The never-ending battle between labor and industry over domination and control of the agency which controls occupational safety and health continues. Labor's viewpoint is capsulized in a statement made by Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, head of the Health Research Group, when he stated in reference to noise and cotton dust standards, "It appears the Institute (NIOSH) knuckled under to industry." However, industry's representatives decry financial failure if new rules, standards and controls are implemented President Todd C. Walker of Firestone Plastics Co., a division of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., declared that the new vinyl chloride standards would put "industry on a collision course with economic disaster." Henry Ford 2d has urged a moratorium of at least five years on "all but the most urgently needed standards."

Proposed Action

In an attempt to curb the rising epidemic of occupational illness, several sound proposals are being offered. OSHA and NIOSH have begun a 30-month, $3.5 million project to develop standards for 400 of the most toxic substances used in industry. Since thousands of new substances enter the environment each year, Dr. Selikoff considers efforts to control all the hazards "fire-fighting" and adds: "Only a few of the conflagrations can be fought, those with the highest and brightest flames."

At a recent scientific meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences, it was proposed that a translation of its 4-day seminar on occupational cancer be made to a "short, popular format to benefit workers and consumers who are considered to face high risks of such hazards.” It is felt that workers and their union leaders, if more informed, would demand and initiate scientific studies and surveillance systems on their own to detect cancer and other illnesses attributable to occupational hazards.

Strong federal legislation may be the necessary cure. The Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA], which would mandate the testing of many chemicals before they were sold to the public and which would require companies to inform the Government of all health data they developed privately, is still pending in Congress. In each of the last two Congresses, the House and Senate have passed different bills on the subject, and each time they have failed to reconcile them in conference. The "Try-It,-It-May-Be-Safe Philosophy" must be terminated.


The author, Jon L. Gelman, practices law in Wayne, NJ. He is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman  1.973.696.7900 have represented injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.

© 1975-2023 Jon L Gelman. All rights reserved.

Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L.,  Occupational Disease: A Period of Convalescence or an Era of Epidemic, (1975),

This article first appeared in "The Reporter." Passaic County Bar Association, May, 1975.


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