Thursday, April 28, 2005


On March 23, 2005, a huge explosion ripped through the giant BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 contract workers. Twelve of the workers were in an office trailer located in the middle of the blast zone. As with most workplace fatalities, illnesses and injuries, these deaths were preventable. While a full investigation won’t be completed for many months, it is clear that refinery officials were aware that the process was outdated and hazardous. Refinery officials and the contractor were also aware of the trailer’s hazardous location.

Today, April 28, is Workers Memorial Day. Across the country, workers and labor unions will pause to remember the 15 Texas City employees and the more than 5,500 other workers killed in workplace incidents over the past year. Between 50 and 60 thousand workers perished from work-related illnesses caused by toxic materials like asbestos close to five million suffered injuries and illnesses. The toll is enormous: according to Liberty Mutual, the nation’s largest workers’ compensation insurance company, the direct cost of occupational injury and illness is $1 billion per week, with indirect costs many times higher.

Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act 35 years ago to assure “every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions.” Among the tools given to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were the authorization “to set mandatory occupational safety and health standards” and the ability to penalize those who break the laws. But instead of making progress in workplace safety over the past several years, the Bush administration has taken the country backwards.

In the workplace safety field, the Bush administration’s aim to make workplace safety issues less “confrontational” is transforming this country from a nation of laws to a nation of fact sheets and web pages.

One of the first actions of the Bush administration was to repeal an OSHA standard that addressed the biggest source of injury facing American workers -- ergonomic hazards. Year after year back, shoulder and wrist disorders make up one-third of all workplace injuries and illnesses. Instead of a standard that would have forced employers to address this workplace epidemic, OSHA substituted voluntary guidelines, along with a new innovation of the Bush administration: the Alliance – a voluntary information sharing partnership between industry associations and OSHA.

Setting up voluntary alliances as a replacement for mandatory standards has become a pattern for the agency and a means to accomplish the long-term goal of President Bush’s corporate supporters – making OSHA irrelevant.

For example, when the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent government agency, recommended in 2002 that OSHA revise a standard to prevent explosions that have killed over 100 workers between 1980 and 2001, OSHA’s only response was a voluntary alliance with the chemical industry.

When a butter flavoring chemical destroyed the lungs of thirty workers at one popcorn plant in Missouri, OSHA formed an alliance with the Popcorn Council instead issuing an emergency standard. The alliance has yet to produce even a fact sheet. This is not an isolated example. OSHA regulates only around 600 out of the thousands of chemicals used in industry, and the vast majority of those standards are based on information more than 40 years old. The only chemical standard close to completion, however, is being done under a court order.

There is nothing wrong with promoting outreach and information sharing. In fact, government agencies should do more of it. But outreach should accompany enforcement, not replace it. Educating drivers about the dangers of drunk driving is important. But education should not replace strict laws that punish drivers found guilty of drunk driving.

OSHA’s penalty structure is another problem. Even when an employer knowingly puts a worker into a dangerous environment that causes his death, the maximum penalty, which OSHA rarely pursues, is 6 months in jail. The penalty for harassing a burro on federal land is one year in jail. In fact, killing fish and crabs draw larger penalties than killing workers. After a chemical tank at a Delaware Motiva refinery exploded in 2001, dissolving a worker in sulfuric acid, OSHA issued a $170,000 fine. But because the acid was released into the atmosphere and the nearby river where it killed thousands of fish and crabs, the Environmental Protection Agency levied a $10 million fine on the company.

Earlier this week, a Brooklyn contractor pleaded guilty to the death of a worker and to cheating workers out of the wages the contractor was supposed to be paying its employees. For killing one worker and injuring others, the employer potentially faces six months in jail, OSHA's maximum penalty. But for committing mail fraud while underpaying its workers (the building was under contract with the Postal Service), the employer faces a possible 20 year jail term.

The purpose of Workers Memorial Day is to “mourn for the dead and fight for the living.” Worthy goals indeed. But forgotten in this motto are the millions injured on the job every year, many of whom are (were) dedicated workers that have been tossed into the garbage by their employers and our country’s disintegrating workers compensation system. Like the families of those killed in the workplace, most of those injured are left to their own devices without anyone to put their plight into a political context, without anyone out there organizing them for change. Confined Space has fallen into the same trap – focusing on the dead (who are easier to find and count than the injured and ill, and who make far sexier stories) – and forgetting about the millions who have lost their livelihoods, lost the useful lives they once lived, and too often have lost their homes and means of support.

The political issues raging in this country – over court appointments, social security, terrorism and the war in Iraq – are important, but they tend to overshadow many of the concerns of the vast majority of people who are not politically engaged. But ask people if they think that workers injured on the job should suffer economically for the rest of their lives, ask people whether the jobs and chemicals should be considered safe until we manage to count the bodies or lungs of people who prove otherwise, ask people whether they think they have the power to make their workplaces safer or whether they think there is a role for laws and government enforcement – and you’ll probably get answers that don’t line up with those who are in power in Washington (or in most state capitals) today. The challenge is to organize them into a potent political force – not just in New York city and Boston, but in Wichita, Kansas, Houston Texas, Boise, Idaho and Atlanta, Georgia.

This is the challenge we face if we are ever again to move forward on workplace safety issues – in Republican or Democratic administrations. And we’re not going to be able to depend excusively on labor unions to get there. They’re too small, they’re too consumed with fighting for survival, and health and safety has not (yet) risen to the level where enough labor leaders see it as one way to build the labor movement. This doesn’t mean that we give up on labor; they’re still the most potent progressive force out there, but it does mean that we can’t depend on them exclusively. Some states have COSH groups, some have injured workers associations and some states have strong, active and aware unions. But they aren’t enough. Unless and until those concerned about workplace safety make strong common cause with other progressive groups – environmentalists, womens rights groups, progressive churches, immigrant organizations and others, ours will be a difficult and ultimately futile struggle.

The American people are ready to listen. A recent poll showed that out of a variety of issues that Americans think Congress should be involved in (endangered species, gun control, gay marriage, steroids in baseball, "Schiavo" type family health cases), "Rules in the workplace that deal with health and safety issues" came out on top.

And I believe you'd get similar answers if you asked a few more questions:
  • Do you think that the health effects of chemicals should be understood and the chemicals regulated before or after workers get sick and die from being exposed on the job?

  • Do you think that 6 months in jail is an appropriate punishment for an employer who knowingly violates the law, putting a worker into a job where he is killed?

  • Do you think that OSHA standards that protect employees from exposure to dangerous chemicals should be based on the most recent scientific information, or information that was gathered forty years ago?

  • Do you think that public employees who fix your roads, work in your sewage treatment plants, care for the mentally ill, put out our fires and guard our most dangerous criminals should have the same guarantee of a safe workplace that private sector employees doing the same work have?
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Finally, with more than 50,000 workers dying each year from work-related accidents and illnesses, with millions suffering injuries, with workers in the U.S. now working more hours than workers in most of Western Europe and Japan more than one quarter of workers in the mining, manufacturing and wholesale trade industries working more than 40 hours per week, and with mounting evidence that these conditions cause elevated levels of psychological stress, increased exposure to physical hazards and more repetitive stress problems, as well as other serious health problems like heart attacks -- with all of these problems increasing in American workplaces, with the labor movement spiraling into oblivion, why are we, on this Workers Memorial Day, worrying about whether the AFL-CIO is going to abolish its health and safety department? Why can't we seem to understand that the conditions people work under are among the strongest issues on which to build a labor movement that actually shows that it cares about what people actually do at work -- between 9:00 and 5:00 or between 5:00 and 1:00, or between 1:00 and 9:00.

These are the thoughts I'm having this Workers Memorial Day -- and they aren't happy ones.