Workers Memorial Day procession in Philadelphia, 2013. Courtesy of Earl Dotter
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Each year in advance of Workers’ Memorial Day — April 28 — a group in Philadelphia tries to tally every job-related death that occurred in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware the previous year.

This year’s list includes 145 names, among them Duane Canipe, 65, who fell through a skylight and landed 23 feet below on May 11, 2014; Moses G. Fisher, 24, who was overcome by methane gas in a grain silo on September 17, 2014; and Adrian Perez, 54, whose clothing became entangled in a concrete-crushing machine on January 9, 2015.

Perpetually uncounted are those who die of work-related illnesses — the “invisible victims” who succumb, generally years after exposure, to poisons such as asbestos, said Barbara Rahke, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s almost impossible to get their names,” she said.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4,585 people were killed on the job in this country in 2013. Experts say, however, that the death toll from occupational disease in America may be 10 or more times higher. Workers in developing nations almost certainly have it worse.

For this reason, the International Trade Union Confederation — a Brussels-based organization that represents 176 million workers belonging to 328 national affiliates, such as the AFL-CIO in the United States — decided that its theme for Workers’ Memorial Day 2015 would be “removing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace.”

“Chemicals we would have imagined by now would be globally banned keep popping up,” the confederation’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said in a recent telephone interview. “We see emerging fears around some of the new technological issues such as nanotechnology… it’s extraordinary, really. There’s a lot of fear amongst workers.”

In a new report, the confederation cites what it calls a “cautious estimate” from the International Labour Organization that puts the annual death toll from workplace toxics at 651,279 worldwide. That’s one death every 52 seconds. The ILO says there are 160 million new cases of occupational disease each year.

Chemical use, meanwhile, is soaring. More than 84,000 chemicals, only a fraction tested for safety, are in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act inventory, up from 62,000 in 1982. The North American chemical market is expected to grow by 25 percent from 2012 to 2020, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme.

“The reality is, workers have very little capacity today to track exposures in their careers,” said Anabella Rosemberg, the International Trade Union Confederation’s Paris-based policy advisor for occupational health, safety and environment. “When workers change sectors or companies very often, we don’t have health systems that allow them to know what substances they’ve been exposed to.” The burden is on the worker to prove harm, Rosemberg said. “This needs to change.”

The epidemic of work-related cancer and other diseases cries out for stricter regulation, say Rosemberg and her counterpart at the AFL-CIO, Peg Seminario. “We have very few standards to protect workers [in the U.S.], and those we have are 40 or 50 years old and woefully out of date,” Seminario said.

The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration admitted as much in a 2013 press release introducing a new Web tool to allow workers and employers to compare OSHA’s chemical exposure limits with often-stricter ones recommended by other agencies or bodies or enforced by the state of California. “There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective,” David Michaels, assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health, was quoted as saying in the release.

David Michaels, assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health. Maryam Jameel/Center for Public Integrity

On Monday, after an AFL-CIO event memorializing victims of asbestos-related disease, Michaels said the chemical-by-chemical method of setting standards “has failed. It’s like Whac-a-Mole, regulatory Whac-a-Mole. If we issue a standard for one chemical, employers can shift to a different chemical which has no standard. So what we’re trying to do now is find a different approach. And it will be a challenge…but we have to do this.”

Michaels said OSHA has asked the public for ideas on “how we can approach chemicals as categories. We need some help to get there, and we’re hoping to get some help.”

The AFL-CIO event featured the work of photographer Earl Dotter and was sponsored by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. As she spoke, that group’s president and CEO, Linda Reinstein, held the folded American flag that covered the coffin of her late husband, Alan, a metallurgical engineer who died in 2006 of mesothelioma, a cancer almost always caused by asbestos exposure. Today would have been the Reinsteins’ 30th wedding anniversary.

Linda Reinstein, president and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Maryam Jameel/Center for Public Integrity

Afterward, Reinstein said she was angry that legislation to reform the weak Toxic Substances Control Act does not include a ban on asbestos. “Last year we imported 450 metric tons, but the truth is, over the last 115 years, we consumed 31 million tons,” she said. “So it’s not just what we continue to import, but it’s the dangers in the workplace, and this bill will do nothing to actually work on banning it or cleaning up the problem.”

Mike Dennen has felt the agony and terror of asbestos-related disease. In November 2012, Dennen, 61, of Sagamore, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, which occurs in the cell walls surrounding the abdominal cavity. Nodules that turned out to be malignant had been discovered during hernia surgery.

ike Dennen before he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, left, and after his 2013 surgery, right.
Courtesy of Mike Dennen

Dennen assumes he inhaled asbestos fibers while working in the textile industry for 12 years in the 1970s and ‘80s. “None of the products I ever used had warnings that they could cause cancer,” he said in an interview.

Dennen has had two surgeries. The second one, in January 2013, took 11 ½ hours. “They cut you from your breast bone all the way to the top of your penis,” he said. “I lost my right testicle and the cord to it…they scraped my bladder clean. I lost a lot of parts. The second night in [the intensive care unit], a minister was called up and was praying with me. I really thought I was going.”

As he saw it, there was no alternative: “If I did nothing, I would be dead in a year.”

Post-surgery, Dennen has gotten CT scans every three months. So far, he’s clean.

This doesn’t mean the threat has passed. Mesothelioma, which kills about 3,000 people in the U.S. each year, “is not curable,” Dennen said. “It’s a dreadful way to die. It’s an evil, evil cancer.”

Maryam Jameel contributed to this story

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