The furniture industry in North Carolina is doing better than the textile industry, but that’s a little like saying the African elephant is doing better than the mastodon. Between the advent of mass Chinese imports and bookcases of particleboard you “assemble” at home, the market for domestically produced quality furniture has taken a beating, and the communities that market once supported have not been spared the blows. A New York Times report over the weekend pulled back the curtain a bit on the rougher side of life in the Tarheel State.
The Times story is ostensibly about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s failures to prioritize health concerns in its regulation and enforcement, but the thorough reporting and balanced storytelling makes the story human, with real, conflicting pressures. It centers around Royale Comfort Seating, foam cushion supplier to many of the top furniture brands. It also centers around Sheri Farley, a single mother, who, “For about five years…stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names…” The traditional glue for this purpose in the 1980s was eliminated because of effects related to ozone depletion, and the glue after that earned the sobriquet “methyl ethyl bad stuff” by killing more than 30 workers a year. The glue Sheri Farley and her coworkers were immersed in, nPB, is a powerful neurotoxin that raised health concerns as soon as it was introduced to the market. It appears to have been seen as the least bad option.
The gluers of Royale Comfort Seating worked spraying this aerosolized toxin with no respirators and inadequate ventilation, filling the factory with concentrations many times the upper limit established by the manufacturers. In fact, the manufacturers sent a representative to survey the factory and promptly emphasized in the strongest terms the dangers of exposure. Royale was also visited, repeatedly, by OSHA which reprimanded and fined the company, outlining the corrective measures that had to be taken to protect the workers. It appears exposure remains to this day far above maximum levels. Ms. Farley and many others have endured neurological damage that could well be permanent, unable to stand for longer than a few minutes and walking only with a limp.
Why, then, is this anything other than a tale straight out of Dickens, or Upton Sinclair? How could this story be anything other than muckraking of the finest order, revealing the wanton disregard displayed by a company for the health of the vulnerable workers it employs in a hard-hit region? Because of Dr. Ben Wofford, of Newton, NC:
Reluctantly, he wrote a letter in 2005 alerting OSHA about problems at Royale. One worker was in especially bad shape, he wrote: “Indeed he may die as a result of his exposure.”
But Dr. Wofford also urged OSHA not to overreact. “I would hate to see this plant’s multiple shortcomings result in its being shut down,” he wrote, warning of jobs that could be lost. “Many are my patients and are already in dire straits economically.”
This was not an idle, theoretical consideration, derived from a “pro-growth” platform, embodied in the classic Washington whitepaper. The Times describes how the doctor came to his cautious, concerned position:
Royale workers became regular visitors at local health clinics, including the Clinic for People Without Health Insurance, then run by Dr. Ben Wofford. Looking like “upright cadavers,” Dr. Wofford said, cushion workers arrived unable to stand on their own, supported under their arms by family members. They had showered and changed out of their work clothes, he said, but their breath still carried an odor he remembered from his boyhood days putting together model airplanes.
He had watched for years as his patients’ suffering worsened with the bottoming out of the state’s tobacco, textile and furniture industries. When people are out of work, he explained in an interview in his office above the pharmacy in Newton, N.C., a diabetic ulcer that would normally cost a toe takes a leg. Their nonfatal hernia bleeds them to death.
“You kill jobs,” Dr. Wofford said, “you kill patients.”
The issues of regulation, safety, health, well-being, are all enmeshed in a fabric of struggle amidst tightly limited resources. Over the course of the decade, Royale achieved steadily falling concentrations of nPB, eventually meeting what was the initial target given to them by the manufacturer. It explored alternate glues, to see if it could find something less toxic that would still be economical.
In 2005, when seven workers became seriously ill at one plant, Mr. Isenhour said, Royale had to lay off 40 people, close the facility and spend $50,000 to move operations to another site and upgrade the ventilation there. OSHA found high levels of fumes in subsequent years because no one informed the company that fans and filters needed cleaning for ventilation to work properly, he said.
There does not seem to be any question that Royale was negligent, and quite frankly the overall professional competence of the company does not seem to be especially high, judging from this report. However, the pressures it is operating under are very real. Should its operating costs float too high above current levels, its products will not be competitive, and they will be driven from the market. Already making very needed ventilation upgrades cost forty people their jobs. That has its own health consequences, as Dr. Wofford described. To switch to an another glue type would require massive investment in fireproofing, because the alternative is highly combustible. Every option, even for a company that genuinely wants to protect its workers, is fraught with danger and fresh difficulties. Even should the company close down, prove to be too reckless in its disregard for basic worker safety, what are the odds the Chinese company that replaces it in the supply chain will treat its workers better? It is part of the tragedy of the modern circumstance. Health, safety, welfare, growth, are all enmeshed and opposed, and each attempted solution risks being worse than the previous problem. Yet that is only found out once the step has been taken.
Read the full NYT report, it is at the very least a reminder of what investigative journalism at its best can give us in policy debates. It is not the exposés, it is not the scandals uncovered; it is the complex circumstances of human life, exposed in all their contradictions. That doesn’t make policy making easier, but it can hopefully make it better.