by Elizabeth Grossman

“What kind of uproar do you think there would be if CEOs were dying at the same rate as workers, whatever the data?” asked Steve Mitchell UAW Local 974 Health & Safety Representative, just before Labor Day in an online discussion about current U.S. occupational health and safety statistics.

As David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Labor for Safety and Health, pointed out in his July 19th letter to colleagues marking the 40th anniversary of OSHA, “Fourteen workers die on the job each day, far from the headlines… [and] Every year, more than four million workers are seriously injured or are sickened by exposure to toxic agents,” this despite the improvements that have taken place in workplace safety since OSHA began in 1971.

An ever changing litany of these calamities appears on the OSHA website under the heading of “Worker Fatalities.” The tragedies recounted there today – under a banner that tells us 4,340 workers died on the job in 2009 – include:

6/3/2010 WI – Worker was cleaning planes and was exposed to chemicals.
6/8/2010 NC – Residential construction worker doing framing fell from a makeshift scaffold.
6/13/2010 CA – Worker installing a gas line in the attic of a house collapsed from the heat.
6/17/2010 OH – Worker was working with a truck boom. The boom struck a power line and the worker was electrocuted.

I thought about these tragedies – along with Mitchell’s and Michaels’ comments – as I read President Obama’s remarks at the Labor Day Laborfest in Milwaukee, in which he announced initiatives to rebuild the country’s transportation infrastructure and thereby create hundreds of new construction and manufacturing jobs. What came to mind is that the fatal accidents listed by OSHA mostly occurred under rather ordinary working conditions – in jobs that take place around us every day. Jobs building, fixing, and making things – jobs that we need more of. Jobs that most of us think about without considering extreme hazard or danger. But clearly, we need to give these risks more thought and do far more to protect those climbing ladders and wielding machinery – as well as those potentially exposed to chemical hazards.

So I wonder, how much of the President’s proposed $50 billion rebuilding initiative would go to ensure workplace safety for jobs the plan creates? “Currently, many employers are willing to permit the existence of workplace hazards because they recognize it is not in their financial interest to abate serious hazards, especially in the short term,” said Michaels in his July 19th letter. “Too often, the economic and social costs of workplace injuries are borne by the injured worker, their family and our taxpayer supported social programs, rather than the employer.” The maximum OSHA fine, Michaels pointed out, is $7,000 for a serious violation. “In comparison,” noted Michaels, “the top penalty for violating the South Pacific Tuna Act is $350,000.”

What would it take and how much would it cost to eliminate the 14 fatalities that occur in U.S. workplaces each day, even before we start to chip away at the illnesses and injuries that labor statistics don’t capture – let alone what happens in workplaces elsewhere? As Steve Mitchell wrote to me in an email, there’s relatively little general public outrage, until these tragedies hit close to home.

“Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution,” wrote Jefferson Cowie, associate professor of labor history at Cornell University in a New York Times Labor Day op-ed piece. It shouldn’t take a spate of executive suite desk chair accidents to change this equation and ensure that every workplace is as safe as the corner office.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

Comments

  1. #1 bluefoot
    September 8, 2010

    Workplace safety is a huge problem. Just look at the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting spill. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that it’s not in companies’ financial interest to make workplaces safe. And if one gets injured on the job, or needs to temporarily change job scope because of injury, illness or a pregnancy? You’ll probably be one of the people laid off in the next round of company “reorganization.” This goes for all workplaces, not just manufacturing and construction.

    As the title of your post alludes, the working class is everyone who isn’t an executive. I wish more people realized that.
    A not-so-funny illustration of this are travel rules at several companies where I’ve worked. For instance: executives must take separate plane flights, in case something happens. Up to three director-level people can be on the same flight. Up to 6 scientists, and an unlimited number of research associates can be on the same flight. It’s a nice guage of relative value. /sarcasm

  2. #2 cass_m
    September 8, 2010

    I work for a US company at location outside the US and the attitude towards safety on the part of the USian Plant Manager is shockingly poor. Not just indifferent but actively against safety initiatives from the employees even if they would only cost salaried employee time that they are willing to give.

    The Company top executives are constantly emphasizing safety starting every meeting with a safety moment. Yet many at the production middle management level are waiting for upper management to revert to production people from the bean counters because the safety initiatives will go away. Truly for these middle managers, death and injury is an acceptable cost of production.

  3. #3 hibob
    September 9, 2010

    Playing devil’s advocate here, but what is likely to cost more in terms of life expectancy/QALYs in the US: extended periods of unemployment (often attended by lack of health coverage, medications, activity, etc.) or the work related accidents suffered by those who would have remained unemployed if it weren’t for the stimulus package?

  4. #4 bluecollar_phd
    September 9, 2010

    What would you rather have, an unemployed spouse or a dead one? How about son or daughter?

    Or how about this: CEO’s make a few thousand less (from their multi-million dollar salaries) so their workers are safe?

  5. #5 Flamengo
    September 10, 2010

    Folks should realize that the issue of management commitment to workplace safety and health is not only based on economic or financial calculations. It is always also a political issue, which means, power relations between workers and management in the workplace. Good and obviously democratic unions are essential for improving health and safety conditions of work, because they can organize and represent the collective power of workers to make safeth and health change happen. Without this employee collective power, even when it makes economic sense to invest in safety and health, workplaces do not necessarily become safer. Since most workers do not belong to unions in the U.S., employees have to find a way to push for health and safety improvements. A much needed social movement that pushes for this does not yet exist in the U.S, but seems to be growing in certain populations through for example the work of Worker Centers.
    Having said that, it is also the case, the exception that confirms the rule, that managers may commit to improving health and safety in some forward thinking businesses. Too few of those though….

  6. #6 KO
    September 11, 2010

    Have any of you actually done real work in the real world? There is no such thing as “safe” work, practically by it’s very definition – but the point you seem to miss here is that the person doing the work is the one responsible for their own safety.

    Yes, there is a valid discussion for larger issues – such as chemical exposure in a large industrial setting, or the recent Deepwater Horizon incident. That’s not what I’m talking about. To use your own examples: a Framer falling off a makeshift scaffold should have braced the scaffold or tied themselves better, a boom truck operator -knows- the danger of power lines, and anyone who works in the attic of a house (such as myself) -knows- what dehydration can do to you.

    These aren’t policy issues, or regulation issues, or legal issues, or even OSHA issues. These 3 of your 4 examples are individuals taking shortcuts or ignoring common sense, which is a good example of evolution in action. These workplaces will NEVER be safe, regardless of what new rule or law you may impose, so stating that a new policy would prevent an individual from suffering the results of their own actions completely misses the point of what workplace safety is all about.

    These issues should never be a ‘top-down’ discussion… this is a ‘bottom-up’ problem that requires people to be responsible for their own safety, and the more you make it a debate about OSHA regulation or Health & Safety policy – the more people will be hurt as a result of their own actions. Placing safety responsibilities at upper management levels, rather than at the lowest levels of a workplace, will always yield the opposite of your intended result.

    As such, giving the working individual MORE control over their immediate environment (rather than less, as under increased regulation) is what would result in a greater degree of workplace safety. In EVERY workplace I’ve ever been in, the safest were those control by those doing the actual work – whereas the least safe were those which were heavily control by a management preaching the bible of OSHA law.

    ‘Nuff said.