Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Washington Post Discovers Workplaces are Dangerous

The Washington Post, in an article entitled "New Occupational Hazards," has discovered that it's not just the old "dirty, smelly, hazardous" jobs that are dangerous. SARS, AIDS and workplace violence have suddenly made "safe" work more hazardous:
Broadly speaking, the U.S. workplace has become markedly safer since 1971, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created. Workplace fatalities have been cut in half, and injury and illness have fallen 40 percent.

But while some jobs have always been pretty dismal because they are dirty, smelly, hazardous or pay poorly, the emergence of new kinds of health risks -- from terrorism to SARS -- are making some formerly good jobs bad, and some formerly bad jobs awful.

Postal work, for example, was reliable but boring government employment, until postal workers started dying from anthrax spores. Package delivery seemed like a steady line of work, until workers had to start screening innocent-looking parcels in an effort to determine whether they contained bombs or explosives. Nursing has always carried a certain prestige along with some risk. But now a combination of orange alerts and a raft of infectious diseases is adding new stress to the job. Flight attendants were never highly paid, but the glamour of the job and the opportunity to travel the world made up for it, at least in the days before Sept. 11 and SARS.
Of course nurses who have spent their entire careers suffering from back injuries, toxic chemicals, infectious diseases and violence might dispute the fact that SARS has "suddenly" made their workplaces dangerous. As would a postal worker, who is no stranger to dangerous machinery, musculoskeletal injuries and other workplace hazards.

The article quotes Harvard Professor Kip Viscusi who is representative of a collection of conservative economists who argue that the market -- and not government -- will take care of health and safety: companies will be forced to pay workers more for dangerous jobs than safe jobs (giving them an incentive to make their jobs safer). If a job is dangerous, but the employer refused to pay workers more to get sick and die, the worker will simply find another job that is either safer or or a job that pays them more to get cancer or lose their limbs. (Why workers should have to choose between higher pay and their lives is not addressed. Those simple working folk probably don't value their lives or limbs as much as academics.)

For more information on this Adam Smith-inspired theory of job safety, check out (I'm not kidding) where you will find an article by nutcase George Reisman on the Frontline/NY Times McWane series. Here's Reisman's summary of the problem:
While one cannot help but feel the greatest sympathy for those whom the series describes as having lost life or limb or suffered disfigurement, and utter horror at the manner in which they suffered, one must also identify the series for what it is, namely, a totally misguided attack on the profit motive and call for further government intervention to overcome the alleged evil of the profit motive....The purpose of this article is to show that if the safety of workers is the goal, the free market, and not government intervention, is the solution.

Problems with the economy? Reisman:
The great run up in business costs over the last thirty years or so, on account of so-called safety and environmental legislation, has played an enormous role in worsening economic conditions for large numbers of wage earners and ordinary people in general. Those seeking an explanation of such things as the growing need for two breadwinners in a family need look no further.

Anyway, even Viscusi admits that in this economy, "Most at-risk workers won't be paid more anytime soon, particularly in today's sluggish business climate, said W. Kip Viscusi, a professor of law and economics at Harvard Law School. If history is a guide, he said, "people will just quit their jobs." Sounds simple enough.

Luckily, there is a more sensible solution: union. (Those of you with the print edition of the post will see a large photo of workers holding a UNITE! banner). The article describes organizing efforts at Cintas Corp., a Cincinnati-based laundry and uniform rental company, partly in response to workers' concerns over blood-tainted laundry. Cintas, according to the Post, is not amused:

We get high marks for our corporate culture," Karen Carnahan, vice president and treasurer of Cintas Corp said. "We would have taken care of that, there's no doubt in my mind. . . . If there was something, an exposure, our people would handle it properly." She said Cintas has been targeted by outside union organizers involved in "a desperate effort" to gain members at a time unions are in decline.
But never fear. In case the "desperate efforts" of "outside union organizers" fail, OSHA is riding to the rescue, armed with a fearsome battery of power-point presentations and fact sheets that are sure to leave negligent employers quaking in fear:
"We will be doing more," [Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John] Henshaw said. "Will we be writing regulations for these things? Probably not. . . . The important thing is not to go through a lengthy rule-making process but to get information out as quickly as we can in easy-to-read format so people can put it out at their workplaces."

In early May, for example, the department began posting on its Web site a PowerPoint presentation for employers to use in discussing the risk of SARS with their workers, including links to other agencies tracking the disease. In April, the agency posted information for employers to use to plan for emergency workplace evacuations.
So, if you or one of your kids was starting a job with these "new" (or more traditional) safety and health problems, which of the three possible solutions would you choose: the free market, OSHA information, or a union?