Cutting workers, demanding shortcuts: recipe for injury and death on the job

“They were rushing because they had to get the equipment to another jobsite,” said the widow. “The boss tapped him to do the work because they were short-handed. He wasn’t trained to do it” said the grieving mother. “Yeah, I used equipment that I knew was unsafe. You’re shunned if you complain,” noted the disabled worker.

These comments are just some of what I heard last week from family members who lost a loved one from a fatal on-the-job injury. Their remarks were eerily similar to what we’ve learned from survivors of a few of this year’s most notorious workplace disasters. Offshore workers from the Deepwater Horizon rig said “drilling priorities taking precedence over planned maintenance.” Coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine said they were “marked men” if they raised safety concerns. Kim Nibarger of the United Steelworkers puts it this way:

“I think that there is a production or profit over safety at almost every site. The official stance may not be, but the actual workplace reality of it is production or profit over safety.” Nibarger says lack of proper and regular maintenance of equipment is a big safety factor in oil refinery operations. But so is under-staffing, pushing too few workers for too many hours. “Staffing is an extremely critical issue. It not only has to do with the ability to respond to emergency events, it’s also a leader in the tremendous overtime that we see in the industry.

What Nibarger and the others are saying is it comes down to power. Who has it (employers) and who doesn’t (workers.) In many (most?) U.S. workplaces today, workers have little or no say in how the work is organized. This includes mandatory overtime and swing shifts, and no input on equipment choices, production quotas or maintenance schedules. The degree of control that individuals have over their work can’t be separated from occupational health and safety. Many employers fail to make that connection and continue to insist that having catchy safety slogans and “fixing” worker behavior are key to a safe workplace.


With the national unemployment rate exceeding 9 percent and the rate two times higher in certain regions of the country, there’s no doubt that employers have the upper hand. Favored workers are those who put up and shut up. As long as a worker needs the job more than the boss needs the worker, employers hold the reigns of power in the workplace. (See Sue Richardson’s book Reshaping the Labour Market.) It may sound crass, but that’s the reality for workers today. What’s a worker really supposed to do when:

**equipment has been modified to short-circuit safety devices?
**tools needed to do the job are in short supply and workers are forced to improvise with inferior techniques?
**safety devices are alarming but the boss says they are just malfunctioning?
**there are too few workers to do the job thoroughly and according to plan?

When I talked to workers about the job hazards that keep them up at night, the #1 answer is: we don’t have enough workers to do the job right. Doing it right means safely and correctly.

Last month I heard from a West Virginia coal miner who said that the mines used to have general laborers who would shovel the belt lines and keep coal dust from accumulating. No more. The operator would rather have the coal dust accumulate and then have miners work overtime or a few extra shift to clean it up. Last week, it was a communications tower climber who told me a similar tale. He said workers are stretched thin across so many job sites that climbers are working alone or with new hires who don’t have adequate training or experience. Both situations create their own safety challenges for the workers.

It seems that the days are long gone when an apprentice would work for a couple of years side-by-side with a journeyman. He (or she) would develop all the needed skills to perform the trade safely. It seems to me that those boasting of U.S. workers’ productivity have blinders on to a pendulum swung too far. Their economic metrics are missing the impact of forced overtime, lack of control, and job stress on worker health and safety.

As I listened to stories from grieving mothers, siblings and widows of loved ones killed because shortcuts were taken to meet short-term business interests, I read the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein’s July 30 article “The new division of labor: adding profits, subtracting workers.” Pearlstein’s commentary reminded me that the U.S. economic system — CAPITALISM — means accumulating wealth for private interests. He was writing about the US Chamber of Commerce’s propaganda campaign extolling business’ purpose in creating jobs. In reality, he wrote

“…businesses exist to create profits for shareholders, not jobs for workers. That’s why they call it capitalism, not job-ism.”

Pearlstein noted that despite our struggling economy, corporate profits have bounced back famously to the tune of $1.2 Trillion annually. However, of the 8 million jobs lost in 2008-2009 by Chamber members, only 600,000 have been restored. No wonder workers are stressed, overworked and experience workplace conditions that foretell disasters waiting to happen. CAPITALISM is not about creating jobs, and it’s not about creating safe jobs. How the work is performed and who performs it is just a means to end: wealth creation for private interest. Thus, the need for regulations to temper the capitalist beast.

At a recent congressional hearing on a bill to improve our nation’s worker health and safety laws, opponents of the measure said it would threaten jobs when our economy is already struggling (here, here, here.) But, I see just the opposite. If we were to institute policies requiring businesses to employ enough workers to do a job safely, jobs would be created. If we were to institute policies requiring high-quality and regularly scheduled training to ensure workers had the skills and knowledge they needed to identify and fix hazards, jobs would be created. And ultimately, lives could be saved and families spared the ultimate pain.

Comments

  1. #1 Art
    August 2, 2010

    The popular consensus is that everyone should thank the capitalists for hiring workers. That we should all be appreciate what we get. That any amenities, decent wages and relative safety, are provided out of the goodness of the capitalist’s heart. That workers are unworthy and replaceable, if not entirely expendable.

    Funny thing is that the impoverishment of American labor is one of the major components of the housing bubble deflation and the wider economic slowdown. Too long hours and low pay leave workers too poor and too tired to be good consumers. And consumer spending is about 70% of the US economy.

  2. #2 yogi-one
    August 3, 2010

    As long as corporations are legally persons, these problems will persist.

    As long as success is defined as generating the cheapest possible product, and selling it for the highest possible price, these problems will persist.

    As long as there is an irrational, unproven and unprovable, fanatical, religious-like blind belief that lawless markets (an unregulated market is a lawless market) are the answer to every human problem, these problems will persist.

    Capitalism does some things well, and should be part of a healthy society. But pervasive, unregulated capitalism will destroy that same society.

    And one more thing. Capitalism is not democracy, and capitalism is not freedom. As long as most Americans conflate capitalism with freedom, these problems will persist.

    Corporations do not have a god-given right to exist. They are not flesh and blood persons. They are NOT citizens, and definitely should NOT be choosing our political candidates, financing political campaigns, or lobbying for deregulation.

    Lobbying should be completely outlawed. The de-facto buying of elected officials and public policy through corporate campaign-financing and lobbying is nothing if it isn’t legally sanctioned corruption.

    The problems are deep and systemic. Shattered families like you have been interviewing are the war casulaties of capitalism run amok, and are left to pick up the pieces of their lives.

    Meanwhile, corporations who NOT human, who are NOT persons, who can’t feel any kind of empathy for their fellow human beings, who don’t know anything of having children or bonds of family and friendship, who don’t have any regard for the community, are given the rights that the affected humans are denied.

    And corporations are given the money and legal power to keep those same families from ever getting any justice, which is a battle corporations are very eager to fight against individual citizens, as we have seen over and over again.

    There are deep structural flaws in the entire economic system, and I don’t think they are going to be addressed. The Democrats are not interested in fixing them any more than the Republicans are. As Paul Krugman put it, both parties are very interested in protecting the profits of the wealthiest 1%, and neither party is worried about the the American working family.

    Until that changes, these problems will persist.

  3. #3 Liz
    August 3, 2010

    Well put, Celeste!

    One of the problems is that employers don’t bear the full cost when employees are injured or killed on the job. Requiring employers to carry workers’ comp insurance is one response to this, but that system doesn’t work well. Even the highest fines that OSHA can issue are paltry compared to the enormous cost of death and disability.

    Both death and disability take a terrible emotional toll on families. Lost or reduced earnings – sometimes decades of them – strain families’ finances and have a ripple effect on workers’ local economies (and even state and national economies, when you think about lost tax revenue). If fines and workers’ comp premiums truly reflected the cost of death and disability from unsafe workplaces, they’d be massive.

    Employers are cutting workers and demanding shortcuts because they’ve done the math and figure it’ll save them money. If such moves increased their risk of incurring massive fines or premium hikes, their calculations might bring them to a different conclusion.

  4. #4 John Dusch
    August 4, 2010

    I was just wondering, why is it that everytime a workplace disaster happens it is the employers fault. Let me explain, I am the Safety Director for a construction company in Phoenix, AZ. We have a very good safety program, we go out of our way to ensure that our employees are properly trained, and that they have the best equipment available to do their job in the safest manner possible. We do our best to comply with all of the OSHA, State and Insurance Indusrty mandates that have been put into place to ensure that we provide a safe workplace for our employees to work. We have instuited programs and company policies to ensure that our employees have a work place that is free from recognized hazards. We have a great bahavior based program in place, yet everday employees make bad decisions in the workplace.

    Isn’t life a decision based process, we make thousands of decisions everyday, when you make good decisions you have good consequences, and when you make a bad decision you are faced with bad consequences. So why is it that when the employee makes a bad decisoion the employer has to pay for it. We have policies in place that say don’t do that, they have been trained in the proper way to perform their daily task, yet when they make the decision to not follow the rules the employer is the one who pays.

    I have stood on job sites and watched employees throw the company under the bus, when asked by an OSHA inspector have you been trained in the proper way to do your job, and they almost always say “NO”. Thus the company receives a citation from OSHA for not providing the proper training to its employees. When we the employer try to hold the employee accountable for his actions we are halled in front of union officials, state officials etc. to explain our actions, and usually at the expense of hiring a lawyer.

    When is someone going to hold the employee accountable for his actions, for his poor decision making process. I guess it is really simple to sit back after the fact and to point a finger at the employer, not taking into consideration that most all workplace accidents happen because someone usually an employee failed to follow the safety guidelines set forth by the company.

    I can not tell you how many times I have investigated incidents where an employee was injured because he made a the decision to stand on a chair, or a plastic bucket, or to walk a ladder, or to scoot his workbench accross the floor, or to clean the floor before he puts on a pair of stilts to do his job. When is someone going to hold them accountable for the decisions they make?

  5. #5 Edward
    August 4, 2010

    Perhaps, some businessmen will not pay the price needed to create a safe workplace because they do not pay the price when workers are injured, sickened, or killed for the lack of safety. Business does not want higher fines or criminal penalties for OSHA violations, but I believe these would compel management’s attention to safety problems.

    I suggest that management would pay the price for safety if they realized that they would pay the price for a worker’s death due to their recklessness and negligence by going to jail for negligent homicide. A few States Attorneys are bringing such cases. We need to see more of them, so business sees the price of the gross lack safety measures.

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