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An estimated 49,000 Americans die prematurely of work-related exposures to toxic substances every year. Mindful of this sad fact, and having served as director of health standards for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Dr. Adam Finkel filed a Freedom of Information Act request with OSHA in 2005, seeking the results of millions of air and “wipe” samples taken at workplaces around the country. Finkel planned to analyze the data and eventually post it on the Web in a format that would allow users to learn the types and quantities of compounds to which they or others may have been exposed at specific businesses during specific periods. He and other researchers, he reasoned, might spot trends that could lead to better enforcement.

OSHA denied Finkel’s FOIA request, citing an exemption that protects “commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential.” Finkel was incredulous. “I didn’t expect it to be challenged because I knew other people had gotten pieces of [the database] without having to file a FOIA,” he said. Now executive director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Finkel sued OSHA in federal court and won in 2007. He’s since acquired data on some three million samples, taken at about 75,000 locations from 1979 to 2009, and recently was awarded a grant to analyze the data and put the results online. “It’s a gold mine,” he said. “It’s by far the biggest compendium of worker exposure data in the country, maybe in the world. The real point is not just to dump it on the public but to surround it with software that makes it easy to say, ‘I worked at Company X’s plant during these years; tell me what I was probably exposed to.’”

Asked if OSHA plans to make the sampling data public, agency spokeswoman Diana Petterson responded in an e-mail that “it is under consideration and must address certain concerns including the data integrity and the completeness of the data.” Finkel, who left OSHA after accusing the agency of failing to test its own inspectors for dangerous levels of beryllium, is skeptical. “They made it as hard as they possibly could,” he said. “This database is up to 30 years old, and they’ve shown no interest in making it accessible or doing anything useful with it internally.”


What: Results of sampling for toxic substances in U.S. workplaces

Where: Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, D.C.

Availability: Closed to public

Format: Delimited text

Usability: N/A

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...