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Alabama auto parts workers face widespread illnesses; trying to unionize

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Workers at the Renosol Seating plant in Selma, Alabama are developing respiratory illnesses akin to asthma and are trying to form a union to represent them according to WRCB TV on Monday. The workers make foam seating cushions and headrests for Hyundai, a large import auto manufacturer. The illnesses, which have affected eleven current and past workers at Renosol, have ranged from bronchitis to severe asthma. Some of the workers have experienced shortness of breath. At least four workers have visited either hospitals or Urgent Care centers due to asthma attacks stemming from their work at Renosol.

One of the workers, Kimberly King, 50, was unable to walk just a few steps to her her one story home due to respiratory ailments contracted at work. King, a non-smoker, has been hospitalized multiple times and, according to her fourteen year-old son, "stays up coughing and coughing."

It is believed that the workers' respiratory illnesses are being caused by exposure to a noxious chemical called toluene diisocyanate, which is used in the production of foam for car seats, as well as in insulation, paint, and nail polish. Academic research supports the belief that toluene diisocyanate is the culprit in these respiratory ailments. Besides, medical professionals have stated that even a one time exposure to toluene diisocyanate could lead to permanent asthma, not to mention the effects of multiple or daily exposures to the chemical. Leading medical officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) point out that both federal and state laws regulating noxious chemicals in the workplace are insufficient.

David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, put it this way:

“OSHA’s workplace exposure limits for many chemicals. The result is that many workers in U.S. workplaces are not adequately protected from chemical exposures.”

Current OSHA regulations do not even require employers to check workers for exposure to chemicals and workers are left to fend for themselves. Workers have decided to give themselves a voice and are attempting to form their own union to represent them and advocate for them. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is helping the Renosol workers to form the union.

According to Kenneth Rosenman, director of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan State University, unions provide workers with "a level of protection." Rosenman went on to explain that unions give workers a voice and quite often even advocate for contracts that surpass OSHA standards for health and safety.

A recent statement by the Lear Corporation, the Michigan based manufacturer that owns Renosol, to the effect that the Renosol plant is "safe" for employees, seemed to underscore the need for the workers to unionize. So long as workers do not have a voice and have nobody representing them, statements such as this one from Lear are going to be all too common. The sooner the workers and the UAW are able to get the unionization going, the sooner the workers at Renosol will be on the road to recovery from workplace induced, life threatening respiratory conditions.

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