OSH Matters

Growing interest in Occupational Safety and Health

Have you seen the movie “Erin Brockovich” ?

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Have you seen the movie “Erin Brockovich”?

A true story where breaches under the OSH ACT is brought to life regarding disposal of chemicals and poor health and safety practices of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). This is a link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjqUUxIy_yk of the movie trailer so can get a preview.

The purpose of this blog is to bring concerns paid to the health and safety practices of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) regarding the plant at Hinkley, California.  Residents of Hinkley were exposed to a chemical hazards (high levels of chromium 6), where Erin Brockovich was given the case.   She asked the question “what does a medical record have to do with real estate” and this sparked the multi-million dollar law suit. She visited the Hinkley area and learned that many of the residents were either very sick or dying. She started to investigate the illnesses of the residents which led to the root cause of what might be causing the same type of illnesses in so many people in the same area.

Four decades prior to Brockovich’s investigation, PG&E started dumping 370 million gallons of cancer-causing chemicals (namely hexavalent chromium 6, cited in picture 1) into unlined ponds which seeped into the groundwater well most residents depended on. Levels were recorded at ten times the maximum amount allowed by law causing severe and life-threatening illnesses like cancer, respiratory problems, infertility and death. Additionally the company presented their use of chromium to the residents and passed it off as conservative levels of chromium as set by EPA standards; in other words like – it’s good for you!


Based on the evidence given in the movie, PG&E was aware of the use of chromium 6 in its cooling towers. Chromium 6 were added to these cooling towers – used to cool down the heat generated from the compressor – to prevent fast corrosion. When the cooling water became saturated with un-dissolved solids (like chrome 6), PG&E discharged some of it into unlined earthen ponds located at the compressor station. Once the toxic material was in the unlined ponds, there was nothing to stop it from migrating to the wells (ground water) that supplied nearby homes, farms and ranches. After the water dried, soil-containing chrome 6 was free to blow in the wind where it could be inhaled by living things. A biochemist said concentrations of highly toxic chromium VI in the groundwater basin reached peak levels of 1,000 to 5,000 times the safe limit for drinking water and more than 50,000 times the safe level for inhalation.



Hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen does not occur naturally and is highly corrosive with strong oxidizing agents rarely found in nature.  Chromium leached into soil or water when ingested by humans have adverse health effects such as skin irritation or ulceration, allergic contact dermatitis, occupational asthma, nasal irritation and ulceration, perforated nasal septa, rhinitis, nosebleed, respiratory irritation, nasal cancer, sinus cancer, eye irritation and damage, perforated eardrums, kidney damage, liver damage, pulmonary congestion and edema, epigastric pain, and erosion and discoloration of one’s teeth. (Picture 2 shows effects of chromium – skin irritation, allergic dermatitis)



PG&E did not have a social responsibility to take reasonable care for their employees and general public health. They withheld information concerning the risk involved on the effects and exposure of the chemical and violated environmental and OSHA laws.  They misled the community (the public) by allowing them to believe that their water source was safe that children could safely play in pools and all members could safely drink water out of their taps.  Several cases of health related reports in the town of Hinkley were filed, yet no initiative was taken by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate the situation or to give guidance or how to protect you/dispose this chemical.

Let’s look at Part II, General duties of employers to their employees Section six (6) under the OSH ACT which was breached,  with special attention to item 3(a) Provide information (right to know) about hazardous chemicals and item  3(e) Provide information on handling and disposing hazards chemicals and their containers.  Under section seven (7), (3) to give information to such persons to provide awareness of the safety and health risks.  Part XV, Miscellaneous shows, Schedule I is a list of occupational disease caused by agents and occupational cancer.  Chromium and chromium compounds are listed as 3.1.4.

Section nine (9) a general duty of the occupier to protect safety and health of the public which is also a direct breach of the OSH ACT.  PG&E has the responsibility for managing the environment to protect the safety and health of the public from the dangers created by the operation or processes carried out and to take special care to ensure therein are integrity and adequate safety systems to prevent occurrence conforming to the approved standards.

They also ordered employees to destroy documentation about chromium contamination and there was a situation where one employee saw another employee’s face mask soaked in blood while he was cleaning the lines. Employees were left exposed to dangerous levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium and were suffering serious health problems.  Can we say he was given efficient PPE to carry out his task given the condition of contamination of the work place environment?  Was there sufficient and relevant risk assessment carried out and take into consideration the risk rating of the severity of the risks and ensure that they conform to OSHA compliance by eliminating or reducing chemical usage or substitute to a safer chemical.

The breaches included:  Section eight (8), PPE and respiratory devices and annual risk assessment. Section 46, notification of injury/illness, with special attention to item 46 (2) states safety/health of public at risk, immediately notification and written notice with 48 hrs. Under general duties – employers to others, section 25K (1) states provide medical surveillance as necessitated by risk assessment findings.

General housekeeping in the office at which Erin is employed is in violation of a number of breaches of the OSH ACT under Welfare.  In particular, during the scene where Erin’s boss opens his office door, he trips on misplaced boxes stacked on the floor this incident is representative of a Trip Hazard.

Other examples of Environmental Carcinogens through inhalation (smoke, gas emissions, etc.) or ingestion (contaminated food/water) these are listed under SHEDULE I of the OSH ACT as diseases caused by agents.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element which is most commonly used as a wood preservative is linked to lung cancer, skin cancer, and urinary tract cancer. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen.

Asbestos is used in insulation materials due to heat resistance where tiny asbestos fibers in the air can get trapped and accumulate in the lungs. Cancer may appear 30 to 50 years after exposure.

Benzene is released by oil refineries, which causes an acute myeloid leukemia; breast cancer; lymphatic and hematopoietic cancer.

Bisphenol A (BPA), polycarbonate plastic used in food cans and dental sealants. BPA is everywhere linked to breast and prostate cancer.

Dioxins are chemicals formed as byproducts of industrial processes involving chlorine such as waste incineration and chemical manufacturing. Dioxins accumulate in fat cells and degrade very slowly in the environment.

Formaldehyde Automobile exhaust and cigarettes is the greatest contributor to formaldehyde concentrations in the air which has caused cancer in long term exposure and it is linked to leukemia and nasopharyngeal.

Vinyl Chloride is used by plastics companies in the production of PVCs and copolymers. Exposure is largely occupational and is very low in the general population and is linked to the development of liver cancer and weakly associated with brain cancer.


After many court arguments, damages of the first 40 people resulted in roughly $110 million; PG&E reassessed its position and decided to settle the entire case. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. In 2006, PG&E agreed to pay $295 million to settle cases involving another 1,100 people state wide for hexavalent chromium-related claims and In 2008, PG&E settled the last of the cases involved with the Hinkley claims for $20 million They are facing a second lawsuit accusing the utility of failing to tell residents of a small community near Barstow about a cancer-causing agent the company allegedly let seep into local groundwater supplies.


On-going clean-up and documentation is maintained at the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) regarding Hinkley. Samples taken in August 2010 showed that contaminated water had started to migrate into the lower aquifer.  As of September 2013, the Cal/EPA reports that some progress is being made on cleanup, but also reports that contamination has expanded to 6 miles long and 4 miles wide.  A study released in 2010 by the California Cancer Registry showed that cancer rates in Hinkley “remained unremarkable from 1988 to 2008.  An epidemiologist involved in the study said that “the 196 cases of cancer reported during the most recent survey of 1996 through 2008 were less than what he would expect based on demographics and the regional rate of cancer.



Goetsch, D. L. (2011). Occupational Safety and Health. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

Linder, W. (2013, November 19). Ethical Issues Within the Movie “Erin Brockovich”. Retrieved from Prezi: http://prezi.com/1nc9tnds4ga4/ethical-issues-within-the-movie-erin-brockovich/

OSHA. (2009). Hexavalent Chronium. U.S: Department of Labor.

TTOSHA. (2004, as ammended). Occupational, Safety and Health Act. Retrieved from Ministry of Legal Affairs: http://rgd.legalaffairs.gov.tt/laws2/alphabetical_list/lawspdfs/88.08.pdf

Soderbergh, S. (Director). (2000). Erin Brockovich [Motion Picture].

Pictures: https://www.google.tt/search?q=erin+brockovich+movie+stills+picture


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