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November 30, 2008


Maybe these guys should read the DOL mission statement:

Our Mission

The Department of Labor fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. In carrying out this mission, the Department administers a variety of Federal labor laws including those that guarantee workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions; a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay; freedom from employment discrimination; unemployment insurance; and other income support.

Don't even try to persuade this crowd to follow the law in letter or spirit. It's the Bush DWTFWW Administration, after all,

I've struggled to come up with a single policy justification for the new regulatory standards. Honestly, I can't think of a single one.

At a certain level, I think this atrocity is as much a reflection of Bush's vindictive elitism as anything else. Just like he threw American lives away in Iraq because he felt it was a "necessary price," here too we can be sure that his sympathies with corporate elites and the profit motive make this "OK."

I wonder if they will try to retroactively apply the regs to asbestos, to see if there is "industry by industry" evidence that it kills people.

Well, if you want a reliable LD50 value under workplace conditions, you have to have a sample size large enough. And sulphuric acid can't be that noxious for example, if pundits can spew vitriol round the clock without getting hoarse[/snark]

Asbestos protects our brave firefighters daily, so how can it be noxious?

"Spending mere decades deciding how to regulate workplace exposure to chemicals that can kill people is obviously much too hasty."

There are chemicals that can't kill? News to me.

We're talking about a chemical which occurs naturally in any number of foods, and exposure to which at these concentrations is perfectly harmless to almost everybody. Which is why the associated disease is fairly rare. Might be a good idea to develop a test for diacetyl sensitivity, rather than regulate exposure levels to the people who just shrug it off.

I guess the question is, at what point do we reach a cut-off where we stop regulating, or are we going to regulate everything?


You do understand the difference between the exposure you get eating an occasional bowl of microwave popcorn and what you get from working in a factory, eight hours a day, that makes the stuff?

Don't you?

You do understand that ten years is plenty of time to figure out the risks of various exposure levels, and that the failure to do so means no one responsible gives a s***.

Don't you?

Wait. I know. The workers voluntarily accept the risk, which they fully understand, in exchange for higher pay. Because there's a factory across the street that's safer and doesn't pay as much, where they can easily find jobs. That's the argument, right?

We can't be protecting worker safety, that shit cost money. How are we going to pay our outrageous executive compensation packages if we do that. Next thing you will be asking us to pay workers a living wage. As if.

From the Journal-Sentinel article hilzoy links to:

Then he noticed his sweat: It was bright orange.

Brett asks:

I guess the question is, at what point do we reach a cut-off where we stop regulating, or are we going to regulate everything?

I'd suggest that cut-off should occur someplace beyond the point where people's sweat turns orange.

And, of course, since different people react differently to different things, please feel free to subsitute "anyone's" for "people's".

If anyone's sweat, anyone's at all, turns orange, then something is freaking wrong.

Thanks -

Brett, why don't you go get a job making the stuff in a factory where exposure levels are uncontrolled. Then report back to us in 10 years. If you still have working lungs. And if you do, be sure to report on all of your co-workers, too.

I suppose when your sweat turns orange you can volunteer to act in one of those sports drink commercials, because it will really be "in you" then.


"And, of course, since different people react differently to different things, please feel free to subsitute "anyone's" for "people's"."

No. Not only "no", but "Hell, no!"

There's scarcely a substance on the face of the Earth that doesn't cause SOMEBODY an atypically nasty reaction. We can't base regulation on the fact that "anyone" reacts badly to something, or we ARE going to be regulating everything.

Or maybe that's the point, you want regulation of absolutely everything?

Brett: silica occurs all over the place. Respirable crystalline silica, however, is different, and it's established that exposure to it at high levels causes cancer and silicosis. I do not want to regulate everything. I do want to regulate things that needlessly kill people.

Here in the real world, if working your normal day job makes your sweat turn orange, something is f'ed up.

There will always be somebody more than happy to run a shop where working your normal day will turn your sweat orange if there's a buck in it for them. And there will always be folks who need a buck badly enough that they'll work in a shop like that.

So we either say, by law, that you can't do that, or people die miserable deaths from stupid freaking easily preventable illnesses because they have to pay the bills and it's the best job they can find.

You bet your ass I'm on the side of regulating that particular problem away.

You can also bet your ass I'm on the side of regulating anything similar.

WTF are we even talking about this for. The item in question is crappy fake butter flavoring for microwave popcorn.

People are going to die from untreatable lung illnesses so that some crappy company can put fake butter flavoring on microwave popcorn cheaply. There sweat is going to run orange and they are going to die.

For butter flavoring on microwave popcorn. Not even real butter. Crappy orange colored butter flavoring.

Is that really the hill you want to die on?

THanks -

Aw, come on, Brett...you can do better than that. I expect better logic from you on this.

You're not using a whole lot of common sense here. If you're changing visible body chemistry like that, then there's a rational basis for looking at the level of exposure.

Devil's in the details and you're simply aren't looking at the details.

Or maybe that's the point, you want regulation of absolutely everything?

Allow me to expand my response to this a bit, so that there isn't any misunderstanding.

Nobody but you, Brett, is talking about regulating absolutely everything. And we're in no danger of regulating absolutely everything. We are not, remotely, in danger of regulating most things.

The topic introduced by hilzoy was an effort on the part of the soon-to-be-gone Bush administration to make it harder to regulate ANYTHING.

One of the examples of a situation calling for regulation that hilzoy presented, and the one that you seem to have picked up on, is the production of microwave popcorn that includes fake butter flavoring. As it turns out, if that ingredient is heated and inhaled regularly over some period of time, as might occur in a manufacturing plant, it kills people.

You take exception to my point that nobody, not even one person, should be physically harmed by the manufacture of butter flavored microwave popcorn. To me, that seems insane.

Why should anyone die to make butter-flavored popcorn?

There are industries in which there is an inherent, irreducible risk. Construction, mining, deep sea fishing. Medical research. Being a test pilot.

You cannot regulate away the risk of those jobs. And, we'd be hard pressed to do without those things getting done. So, we do our best.

Making butter-flavored microwave popcorn is not like that.

If a guy on the loading dock isn't careful one day, and the forklift drops a ton of corn on his head, he's dead. It's a shame, but accidents happen. They are not completely preventable.

Applying butter flavoring to the corn, probably a different story.

I'm going to go way, way, way out on a limb and say that it's highly likely that we can prevent, completely prevent, death from lung disease due to inhaling butter flavoring. I'll even say it could be done pretty easily. By "easily", I mean it's likely that there is no significant technical impediment.

It would just cost a few bucks.

Thanks -

There are chemicals that can't kill? News to me.
I guess the question is, at what point do we reach a cut-off where we stop regulating, or are we going to regulate everything?

Y'know, Brett has a point, but it's basically a semantic quibble. Of course all chemicals can kill, and of course we don't regulate them all (except in the sense that, e.g., we don't expose workers to dihydrogen monoxide in levels over their heads without breathing masks). But this trivial point could and should have been made, if made at all, in a way that presumed good faith and common sense on hilzoy's part. Something like:

"I hope you meant "chemicals that kill in unacceptable numbers in normal industrial processes," rather than "chemicals that kill." All chemicals kill if you suffocate someone in them, for instance, or inject massive quantities into a vein. This semantic correction does not change your point, of course, but it is good to avoid amibguity."

I personally would not have bothered, because Hilzoy's meaning was clear from context and normal speech, even formal written speech, lacks mathematical precision. And I will eat a packet of Orville Reddenbacher uncooked if anyone read that post and came away sincerely believing that Hilzoy wanted to regulate the entire periodic table.

In short, after several years of hanging out here and engaging in amicable policy dispute, can we please stop interpreting each other in unlikely and negative ways? To quote one of my favorite authors, "if you're going to pick nits, at least pick meaningful ones."

Ok, the baby's asleep, so I actually have time to respond in a little more detail.

The question, to my mind, is what to do in cases where we have a chemical which doesn't harm most people exposed to it. People have idiosyncratic chemical responses. You'd be hard put to find a chemical, short of something ubiquitous like water, that somebody somewhere isn't abnormally sensitive to.

So... Some people have peanut allergies. Is the appropriate response to this that Planters should run their plants like they were dealing in isocyanates? Or is the appropriate response that people with peanut allergies shouldn't work for Planters?

What about considerably more rare chemical sensitivities? Suppose one person in ten thousand would die if exposed to Compound X, and the rest of us could swim in it without harm? Should factories that use it go to extraordinary lengths to spare their employees exposure? Make it one person in ten million. One person in a billion.

That's my point in rejecting the idea that regulation is justified if a chemical would kill just one person. You have to draw a line someplace, and drawing a line is an inherently arbitrary business.

Everybody doesn't get bronchiolitis obliterans if they're exposed to diacetyl at these concentrations. As a matter of fact, most people don't. This stuff is NOT like isocyanates, that are poisonous for pretty much everybody.

It's a judgment call, and you don't like the judgment here. Fine. But let's not pretend we're talking about a bright line decision, a cyanide or ioscyanate. We're not.

We're not talking about elemental mercury or breathable silica or lead gasoline additives or carbon tetrachloride either. None of these chemicals kills or even sickens everyone who breathes them at "normal" concentrations. So freakin' what? We do know that these chemicals can be deadly and that occupational and non-occupational exposure should be eliminated to the extent possible, through regulation. Just like diacetyl. Period. The fact that table salt can also be deadly is not an excuse to preclude regulation of these other compounds.

I think that the discussion has gotten slightly off point. The original objection isn't that the government has declared that the substance in question is safe, and should be used. It's that it has gone more than a decade, and hasn't released an opinion at all.

Trying to figure out someone's motives for not doing something is tricky. However, I suspect that a large part of the reason that OSHA refuses to give an answer is that they would have trouble giving the one they prefer with a straight face.

Everybody doesn't get bronchiolitis obliterans if they're exposed to diacetyl at these concentrations. As a matter of fact, most people don't.

How many do get it, Brett? Do you know? According to the linked article there is no good data on that, because many cases have been misdiagnosed and th edisease is not tracked. So if you have that information maybe you could pass it on to the Wisconsin public health people and OSHA and the FDA.

You seem to be arguing that it makes no sense to restrict the use of something that harms one person in a million, ergo it doesn't make sense to restrict the use of diacetyl. Quite a leap.

But let's not pretend we're talking about a bright line decision, a cyanide or ioscyanate. We're not.

I understand the point you're trying to make. I'd respectfully submit that you're picking a pretty bad example to use in making your case.

Thousands and thousands of people every day make microwave popcorn and don't die of lung disease. The issue isn't whether the chemical itself should be banned, and nobody is suggesting that the chemical be banned. It would be hard to ban, it occurs naturally.

The issue is whether, in the context of the industrial process in which it's made and/or used to flavor other foods, it's reasonable to define standards for how the chemical should be handled.

How much exposure should be allowed. How much is safe, and how much not. What procedures should be put in place to prevent exposures that can be harmful.

You know, the kind of annoying, anal-retentive crap that OSHA traffics in so that people don't die in the course of making microwave popcorn taste like it has butter on it.

It has, apparently, been demonstrated that people are getting sick and dying from their exposure to diacetyl. Not as it naturally occurs in the world, not in corporate lunch and break rooms as they make some Orville Redenbacker's for their snack. In the industrial settings where the stuff is made and used. This does not seem to be in question.

WTF is the problem with defining procedures for handling the chemical so that doesn't happen anymore? Seriously, what is the objection?

The rules Bush would like Labor to introduce would, apparently, require long-term studies of the effects of diacetyl on workers in a variety of different industries before such a rule could be made.

Why the hell is that a good idea? We appear to know, now, that people are getting sick and dying. Why not deal with it now, today?

Figure out what level of exposure is dangerous for people working with the stuff and develop industrial procedures to prevent that level of exposure from being achieved.

And yes, in this particular case, I think it's reasonable to err on the side of caution in making that rule, because nobody should f'ing die to make microwave popcorn taste like it has butter on it. It's not something that is worth anybody getting a damned headache, let alone dying.

The point of the post here is that the department of Labor, who are supposed to be looking out for workplace safety, are instead introducing rules that will make it more difficult to do that.

Doesn't that bother you?

I can tell you that it makes me want to find some heads to knock together.

Thanks -

I suggest that you read Doubt Is Our Product (I tried to underline the title but it did not work). This book discusses how the tobacco industry developed the technique for establishing doubt as a means of fighting regulation and how most industries have adopted it. Any research that is produced showing a problem is then dissected by the industry scientists to cast doubt upon the research. It is a very effective in delaying and preventing regulation.

Brett raises the question of what to do about workers who have allergies to substances that appear in the workplace, such as a worker in a peanut factory who is allergic to peanuts. My view is that this situation should be treated similarly to a physical disability. The company should try to accomodate the disability, for example by transferring the worker to a similar job in an almond factory.

The article Hilzoy links to suggests that dyacetyl, unlike peanuts, is harmful to everybody. The article states that, "Diacetyl attacks, inflames and virtually obliterates the bronchioles, the lung's tiniest airways. As the body tries to heal, scar tissue builds up and restricts the airways." No doubt some individuals will have lungs that are more resistant to damage, or which heal more effectively than others. But if the article is correct, then Brett is mistaken when he compares the reaction to dyacetyl with a peanut allergy. Peanuts are harmless to the majority of people, only affecting people with peanut allergies. In contrast, dyacetyl appears to be harmful to everybody; the only variation is in the amount of harm.

We can't base regulation on the fact that "anyone" reacts badly to something

I guess it's just an amazing coincidence that the people whose lungs have been destroyed all happen to work in plants where the orange powder is made. Wouldn't want to base any regulations on the fact that those people "reacted badly"... They were all just hypersensitive, that's the ticket.

People died and continue to die because they work making popcorn flavoring powder, while the industry refuses to admit there's a problem, refuses to change the work process to protect workers, and while the government refuses to write or enforce regulations that would make them.

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