“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.