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The Workplace Toxicity Epidemic

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Work-related illnesses kill 50,000 Americans a year, yet very little is done about it. Congress has not increased the power of OSHA and most violations are just minor misdemeanors, even when they are criminal. Fines don’t even begin to make most companies take OSHA seriously. And 20,000 more Americans die of these illnesses every year than die in the horrors of gun violence. Democrats are starting to take this issue more seriously. The Obama administration has started tightening their statutes and Democratic members of Congress are introducing bills to help. But those bills won’t pass in the face of a Republican Party that is totally fine with workers dying on the job. In fact, Republicans are trying to make it harder to sue companies for asbestos exposure, primarily manifested in the horrors of mesothelioma that doesn’t manifest itself for up to 25 years after exposure.

Some members of Congress have different plans. In early January, the House is expected to vote on a bill proponents say would discourage “false or exaggerated” claims against asbestos trusts set up by corporations that made or used the mineral. The legislation, which passed the House two years ago, would require claimants to disclose personal information such as work histories, diagnoses, partial Social Security numbers, and the amounts of money being sought.

Key sponsor Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican whose district includes industry-rich Corpus Christi, says all of this is necessary to “ensure that funds meant to benefit legitimate future asbestos victims are not used to pay abusive claims.”

But the legislation has triggered fierce opposition, notably from mesothelioma victims.

“We have heard that [it] is needed because of an epidemic of fraud against the trusts,” nine widows and patients wrote in a February letter to lawmakers. “But the evidence doesn’t support this claim. This bill treats us and other asbestos victims like criminals rather than innocent victims of corporate deceit.”

The real aim, they wrote, is to create delays so claimants die before they can recover anything from the trusts: “It’s astonishing to us that, of all the issues Congress could be addressing relating to asbestos, you have chosen one that does nothing for victims, but … gives additional tools to the asbestos industry to drag out these cases and escape responsibility.”

That’s pretty much the short of it. Congressional Republicans care only about protecting their corporate masters from lawsuits. This is a hallmark of the New Gilded Age, as it was the first Gilded Age. Politicians act to shield companies from any accountability and rig the court system so that corporations can do what they want. Dead workers and dead citizens are a result.

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