Because so many of our clothes have labels that say "Made in Bangladesh" or "Made in China," we often picture the textile industry taking place elsewhere, not in our country. You might be surprised to learn that in 2017, the U.S. textile industry supplied 500,550 jobs and the country's textile and apparel exports totaled $78 billion. While working conditions in the American textile industry are much better than they were 100 years ago, workers worldwide are still subject to a wide variety of health dangers because of their jobs.
Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
Workers in the textile industry are exposed to dangerous chemicals. It's part of the business if you work in the dyeing, printing or finishing sector of textiles. Employees work with solvents and fixatives, crease-resistance agents that release formaldehyde, flame retardants with toxic compounds, and antimicrobial agents. Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to various types of cancer, including thyroid, nasal, stomach and esophageal cancers. The chemical can also cause eczema and dermatitis.
High Noise Levels
Exposure to high levels of noise is common in textile factories, particularly those in developing countries where the machines are older are not as well maintained. This has caused hearing loss in many textile workers, and can also cause sleep disorders, changes in blood pressure, anxiety and other ailments. A study of textile workers in Nagpur, India revealed that 76.6 percent of them were at risk for hearing loss caused by noise in their work environment.
Poor Working Conditions
Egregious garment factory conditions have been detailed in the news. In 2012, a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory that killed 112 workers tragically highlighted the terrible conditions of the industry. Eventually, the factory's owners were charged with homicide for their culpability. The next year, an entire building collapsed, killing 1,100 workers in Bangladesh.
Smaller scale issues include cramped work environments with poor lighting and ventilation. Problems in garment factories run the gamut from uncomfortable to extremely unsafe.
Working Conditions Can Cause Bad Ergonomics
Many garment workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome and are also often affected by ailments including forearm tendinitis, lower back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and osteoarthritis of the knees. All of these conditions are caused by repetitive movements and poor ergonomic conditions. These issues are more common in developing nations but can also occur in the U.S. garment industry.
Cotton Dust Can Cause Breathing Problems
Employees who work with cotton have a problem of their own: exposure to significant amounts of cotton dust along with particles of pesticides and soil. This exposure can lead to respiratory disorders and the fatal disease of byssinosis, commonly known as brown lung, which causes tightening of the chest, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Waste in the Industry
The textile industry is known for rampant waste of resources, especially water. Entire ecosystems have been polluted in the past, but modern companies are working toward a relatively cleaner way of doing business. The more progressive companies are reducing water consumption, changing the chemicals they use in dying processes and reusing water for two or more processes, all with a goal of reducing their impact on the local environment.
While the stereotype of poor environmental practices in the textile industry focus on overseas production, American workers are subject to a lot of the same health risks in their own factories. While some companies are working to improve conditions, dangers still exist for a large number of textile workers.
- National Council of Textile Organizations: Facts and Figures
- New York Times: Bangladeshi Factory Owners Charged
- Fast Company: Solutions for the Fashion Industry's Sustainability Problem
- Textile Today: Waste minimization in textile industry
- Fibre2Fashion:Safety And Health Issues In The Textile Industry
Heather Skyler is a business journalist and editor who has written for wide variety of publications, including Newsweek.com, The New York Times and Delta's SKY magazine. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Miami University and a master's degree in writing from the University of Washington in Seattle. Before writing for a variety of publications, she taught business writing in Seattle.