Thursday, February 17, 2005

When Good People Do Bad Things

So this is what I don't understand.

You have employers who, through criminal neglect (in a moral, not necessarily legal sense) kill a worker, or maybe seven workers, or knowingly endanger or kill hundreds of workers and maybe even their wives and their children, and then we get newspaper articles quoting people who defend these guys by claiming that they couldn't possibly have known what they were doing when clear, indisputable documentary evidence clearly shows that they did.

Earlier this week the Chemical Safety Board reported on the dust explosion in Corbin, Kentucky that killed seven employees. They cited documentary evidence that CTA Acoustics knew that the dust covering the place was explosive.

So on one hand, the newspaper quotes this guy:
"They knew what was going on," said Larry Stillings of London, a former inspector at CTA. "We had fires occasionally and stuff, but we were never aware it would blow like that."
This was an understandable response, given the evidence.

But then there's this person:
But others said they didn't blame CTA. Deborah Sizemore, 37, a mold technician, said she doesn't think the company was aware the dust was combustible.

"I don't think that CTA would've intentionally let it go if they thought it was going to cause an accident," Sizemore said.
(Note that the paper prefaces here statement with the statement "doesn't thing the campany was aware..." when the actual quote is has a conditional -- she doesnt' think the company would have intentionally let it go..." One statement talks about facts, the other is more of a value judgement.

And where did they come up with this guy in Libby, Montana who says his Daddy knew his lungs were turning to concrete, but hey, it was a good job?
Plenty of people in Libby, even those who have lost loved ones to the frightening effects of asbestos, say they agree with Grace's adamant contention that it is getting a bum rap. They are especially angry about the indictments of two managers at the mine. "I know them both, and they're honorable men," said Ed Baker, 62, who owns Ed's Threads, a local clothing store, and served for 22 years on Libby's City Council.

"This is a terrible thing that's being done to them," he said. "They're scapegoats."

Baker's father was one of hundreds of people here with great-paying Grace jobs. A mine foreman, he died of asbestosis in 1983 at the age of 71, his lungs "turned to solid concrete," Baker said. It was agonizing. But he does not blame Grace: In fact, he donated one of his father's lungs to the company for study. Baker and other staunch Grace defenders said it had spent enormous amounts of money on cleanup and healthcare, acting responsibly once it became clear how deadly asbestos was.

"No one knew it was this bad for you until later," Baker insisted, referring to the golden-flecked vermiculite laced into the mountain, a seemingly magic mineral that made for spectacularly effective insulation and was put in millions of home attics and tens of thousands of office buildings.
And then another paper quotes him again:
"To come out and say that these guys are basically responsible for crimes that hid things, that hurt the people of Libby, is baloney," said Ed Baker, a former city councilman whose father died from asbestos-related disease in 1983 after working at the mine for 30 years.

"He'd go back to work for them today if he was alive. My dad knew in the '60s that his lungs were turning to concrete. Like he always told me, he took his chances and he could have quit at anytime. But they were good jobs."
His dad wasn't the only one who knew in the '60s that workers' lungs were turning to concrete.

Maybe this is some tribute to American individualism and family values to put a guy on a pedestal who says, screw my health, screw my future, I'm willing to sacrifice it all for a decent job so I can feed my family, and make my kids' lives better than mine was, and I feel nothing but gratitude for the people who allowed me to have this job, even if it's going to kill me.

But you can't seriously tell me this guy's Daddy would have said "fine" if W.R. Grace had sat him down and said "Sure, you can have a job here, but we just want you to know that we will expose you to a deadly cancer-causing dust and (in order to increase our profits and reduce our liability) we will do nothing to protect you from it and not only will you die prematurely from a long, lingering, painful death, but we're also going to expose your wife and your children and cause them to suffer premature, long, lingering and painful deaths. And who knows, if we can get away with it long enough, maybe we'll even expose your grandchildren. So just sign here. Congratulations. You start tomorrow."

OK, I can understand perhaps not wanting your neighbor to go to jail just because he failed to train or provide safety equipment to a couple of Mexicans who suffocated in a pool of pig shit. I mean he's a nice guy, and maybe he just didn't know about the hazard, or maybe he knew, but hey, we all have to take some risks, and he really loves his children, he goes to church, and you really don't want to throw him into prison with drug addicts and murderers and mother rapists and father stabbers and father rapists. Truly, the last thing he would ever want to do is cause the death of one of their workers.

David Barstow's 2003 New York Times series on death in the workplace tells the story of California prosecutor Roy Hubert Jr., whose mission was to go after employers whose workers are killed in their workplaces -- in this case an employer of two immigrant workers who passed out in a confined space and drowned in a pool of manure.
"These are not evil people," [Hubert] said. "They are not people who hurt for the sake of hurting. They are not bad people. This is good ol' Pat, good ol' volunteer fireman Pat. He feels terrible. He's devastated. I get a lot of that. Well, good. So are the widow and the mother and the father and sister and brother. Just imagine the incredible despair and anguish as you're drowning in manure."
And ultimately, that's what it's all about -- the father and sister and brother and children of those workers who would still be alive today if someone had not tried to take a shortcut to save a few minutes or lie to save a buck (or millions of bucks).

It's not unusual in this country for "nice people" to receive justifiable punishment -- people driving a little bit drunk who kill an entire family or people who absent-mindedly leave the pool gate open, or nice family men who go to jail for stock manipulation and accounting fraud, or nice celbreties who go to jail for lying to government officials. The purpose is not only to punish people for stealing or for breaking laws that were designed to prevent serious harm to people (or property), but also to deter others from doing the same thing.

Yet workplaces seem like different worlds. Not only do workers give up many of their civil rights and control over their health and safety when they walk through the doors, but too many in this country still see the workplace as some kind of "no-fault zone" for employers, where crimes are forgiven, negligence overlooked, and deaths, injuries and illnesses are just freak events or something no one could have predicted or prevented. Certainly nothing that you'd want to send anyone to jail for. I mean they're just trying to run a business, and if you put them in jail or fine them too much, they'll have to lay people off. (Funny how Republicans and business ideologues are only concerned about layoffs when they're the result of government penalties and regulations.)

Oh, and we should all feel grateful just to have a job.