Skip to main content

Welcome to the Cancer Factory

The United States says it cares about blue-collar workers, but the worker protections in place tell a different story.

Alliance for American Manufacturing

The United States doesn’t think much of its blue-collar workers. Sure, politicians praise them and solicit their votes. But the true measure of the nation’s commitment to the people who staff our factories, mines, and warehouses—the legal protections we offer against illness, injury and death—shows that we really don’t care.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently announced that 5,486 workers died on the job in 2022, a nearly 6 percent increase from 2021. Employers reported 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2022, the BLS said, up by 7.5 percent from the previous year. This is almost certainly an undercount, given that many work-related health conditions go unreported.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been starved of resources—while being, paradoxically, vilified as a business-killer—since its creation in 1970. In fiscal year 2022, the agency spent $3.99 per worker, according to the AFL-CIO. That’s less than a venti Caffè Latte at Starbucks. 

What’s more, the nation had only 1,871 federal and state inspectors to police its 10.8 million workplaces, translating to one inspector for every 77,334 workers, or enough to visit each workplace once every 190 years. This does not represent a serious commitment to employees’ well-being.

I note these statistics as a journalist who has written about occupational health and safety for decades and just published a book, The Cancer Factory: Industrial Chemicals, Corporate Deception, and the Hidden Deaths of American Workers, that memorializes one of the most egregious instances of worker neglect since World War II. In this little-known episode, a chemical manufacturing plant in Niagara Falls, New York, owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, began using a pungent, yellowish liquid called ortho-toluidine to make an antioxidant for tires in 1957. Goodyear bought the chemical from DuPont and other suppliers.

DuPont knew by the mid-1950s that ortho-toluidine caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals and assiduously protected its own manufacturing workers from exposure. DuPont didn’t get around to telling Goodyear about this potential human carcinogen until the late 1970s, however, and Goodyear was slow to safeguard its own employees, even after receiving DuPont’s belated warning. 

The predictable result: an epidemic of bladder cancer, a relentless and devious disease that can seem to disappear, only to resurface years later. At last count, there were seventy-eight cases from the plant, four times what would be expected in the general population. Other cases have probably gone unrecorded.

The Goodyear plant also produced an excess of liver cancer due to its use of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, to make polyvinyl chloride resin, a precursor to PVC plastic, from 1946 to 1996. It was, truly, a cancer factory.

OSHA is hopelessly behind in its control of chemicals. Many of its exposure limits are decades old and don’t reflect current science; most of the tens of thousands of chemicals in global commerce have been assigned no OSHA limits and haven’t been analyzed for toxicity.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

The Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating and pondering additional regulation of some chemicals, including vinyl chloride, that are found in Americans’ homes, ambient air and workplaces. But the process of restricting or banning a chemical is excruciatingly slow and subject to the caprices of politics.

No rational person would say that things are as bleak in U.S. workplaces today as they were in the late 1960s, before Congress, prodded by Richard Nixon, passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In researching for my book, I thumbed through countless documents from that not-so-distant era and came away astonished at just how barbaric conditions were.

Some 14,500 workers were dying on the job each year, and millions more were being maimed and sickened. On February 1, 1968, two days after the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of labor, Willard Wirtz, opened a series of congressional hearings by comparing America’s workplace carnage with the bloodbath in Southeast Asia. Just as “this morning’s paper reports a casualty list from Vietnam,” Wirtz testified, there was a “casualty list repeated every single workday throughout the year in this country.” And yet, he said, it was “almost impossible to realize the under-emphasis which has been placed on this matter over the years.” 

With a few narrow exceptions, the states were responsible for regulating health and safety on the job. Most barely tried. Heavily industrialized Ohio had 109 wildlife inspectors and 79 workplace inspectors. Mississippi had no labor department and two safety inspectors.

When Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law on December 29, 1970, he called it “probably one of the most important pieces of legislation, from the standpoint of 55 million people who will be covered by it, ever passed by the Congress of the United States.” The agency created that day, OSHA, did make a difference in workers’ lives, especially during the Carter Administration, when it cracked down on toxic substances, including benzene, lead and cotton dust, under the leadership of Eula Bingham.

But OSHA was gutted under Ronald Reagan and never fully recovered. Union membership, meanwhile, has fallen precipitously. In 1983, according to the BLS, the membership rate in America was 20.1%; in 2022 it was 10.1%. The scrappy Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, which represented Goodyear employees in Niagara Falls and pressed for a government investigation into the bladder-cancer outbreak there, is no more. OCAW leader and firebrand Tony Mazzocchi, an eloquent advocate for members’ health and safety, died in 2002.

We’re left today with a worker-protection regime that is very much hit-or-miss. While some companies — probably most — take seriously their legal responsibility to provide a safe place of employment, others simply don’t care. Immigrant workers often get the worst of it. 

In reporting for my book and the nonprofit news organization I run, Public Health Watch, I’ve encountered two clusters of the ancient lung disease silicosis among workers who cut and grind artificial-stone countertops. They have little or no respiratory protection and inhale ultrafine silica particles that will eventually suffocate them if they’re not removed from exposure. The first cluster was identified in Northern California in 2019, the second in Southern California in 2022. 

In each case, the victims were relatively young Latino men happy to have a steady job that paid $14 an hour. As of December, the number of confirmed silicosis cases in California stood at 100 and will likely go higher.

California, to its credit, has stepped up inspections of artificial-stone fabrication shops and passed an emergency rule that will require shop owners to suppress silica dust with water and take other protective measures. But it has its own workplace regulatory agency, known as Cal/OSHA. About half the states don’t and must rely on federal OSHA, which has begun a silica enforcement initiative but is stretched so thin that it’s hard to imagine it will make a serious dent in the problem.

And so, more countertop workers will perish. When I interviewed a gravely ill Juan Gonzalez in the San Fernando Valley in October 2022, six months before his death at age 37, I asked him what message he had for consumers. “Many of us continue working in this field out of necessity, and many continue because of ignorance, not knowing what causes the damage: the stone,” he said in Spanish. “Behind the kitchen, basically, there’s sweat and blood and, at the worst, even death.”

We are in the third decade of the twenty-first century. The disease that consumed Gonzalez was killing miners and stone-cutters in Greece and Rome two millennia ago. We can do better.

Jim Morris is founder and executive director of Public Health Watch and the author of “The Cancer Factory,” an investigative book on chemical exposures in the workplace. He has been a journalist since 1978, covering public health and the environment.

A voice for peace, social justice, and the common good! Since 1909, The Progressive magazine has aimed to amplify voices of dissent and voices under-represented in the mainstream, with a goal of championing grassroots progressive politics.