Another American Killing Field—on the Job
Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, world imperialism spreads War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death, throughout the world. Author Gore Vidal describes this era as “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace’. One perpetual war which is not openly publicized is the war for profits. It takes place every single day at the point of production, and is killing increasing numbers of workers every year. Today, workers are used as “cannon fodder” both in the war in Iraq and in the war for profits at home. Workplaces have become perpetual “killing fields.”
According to Lisa Cullen, the author of A Job To Die For, “Every day, 165 Americans die from occupational diseases and 18 more die from a work related injury. On the same day, more than 36,400 non-fatal injuries and 3,200 illnesses will occur in America’s workplaces.”
Every year 60,225 Americans die from occupational diseases while 6,570 more die from work-related injuries. In that same year, more than 13,286,000 non-fatal injuries and 1,168,000 illnesses occur in America’s workplaces. Again: “Each year, this unknown workplace epidemic extends into nearby communities to claim the lives of 218 innocent bystanders and injure another 68,000.”
In 2005, it was estimated by Paul A. Schulte, Ph.D., of the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), that the total rate of disabling occupational injuries in the United States reaches 3.8 million per year. Worldwide, at least 800,000 deaths and 100 million injuries may be accounted for by occupational factors.
Since detailed occupational and job history records are not kept by the Federal government, the above figures are in reality a low estimate. The effects of an occupational injury or exposure to toxic substances are not taken into account when workers die years after the initial injury or exposure.
One of the best descriptions of the government’s attitude to workers’ health and safety can be found in the conclusion of a paper by Peter F. Infante, former director of standards for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It was presented before President Clinton’s Cancer Panel in 1994 and was also published in the Winter 1995 issue of New Solutions with the title: “Cancer and Blue-Collar Workers: Who Cares?” In this article Infante writes:
“…In the early 1900s, canaries were routinely taken down into the mines. The men used these canaries to give them the first sign of possible disaster or death. When the canaries passed out or died, the men knew that there was a problem with exposure to carbon monoxide and immediate action was needed. The analogy here is clear. Blue-collar workers appear to be the canaries in our society for identifying human chemical carcinogens in the general environment. The fact that occupational cancer is a sentinel for identifying carcinogenic exposures in the general environment is reason alone to justify an intensified cancer research effort in the workplace. Yet, our efforts to study their exposures to carcinogens, or to develop technology to decrease that exposure, or to develop safe substitutes have been relatively minimal.
“Given the obvious benefits to an intensified cancer research effort directed toward the study of workers, I ask myself why it has been given so little attention. In my opinion, this inattention is reflected in the way data on health are gathered in general in the U.S. Health data are published by sex and race, but not by social class. This is no accident.
“It reflects a social class bias by those gathering the data. I suggest disproportionate death from cancer among blue-collar workers is a social class issue and that the problem is neglected because it is a potentially explosive issue. It raises questions about the control of production and cost of production. In 1992, the Congress of the United States passed legislation entitled the ‘Cancer Registries Amendment Act.’ This Act authorizes $30 million per year through 1997 to fund statewide cancer registries. Yet, not a single cancer registry in the United States requires that a detailed occupational and job history be taken as part of its activity. It is reported that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) allocates $20 million per year (1 percent of its budget) for occupational cancer studies. Why is the amount of funding to investigate cancer in the workplace so disproportionately low in relation to the ‘success’ of confirming human causes of cancer by studying blue-collar workers?”
Business as Usual
Infante’s paper fell upon the deaf ears of Democratic President Clinton and the rest of the United States Government. After all, job-related injuries and deaths are an unavoidable part of the corporate drive for higher profits—with the complicity of both major parties. Safety regulations are always a compromise between science/common sense and corporate profit margins, usually heavily weighted towards the latter. What is best for working people is only considered as an aside, and then only for cosmetic purposes or to avoid costly lawsuits.
OSHA had tried to correct itself in the 1970s but with no success. Under pressure from below, OSHA administrators during the Carter years estimated that their proposed legislation would produce a 20 percent drop in cancer rates. But then along came Ronald Reagan—a well-known “carcinogen”—and so began the slow erosion of workers’ safety guidelines that had been fought for by American workers since the 1930s. Bush Sr. and Clinton followed in his path, and let’s not forget that one of Bush Jr.’s first acts as president was to repeal OSHA-mandated ergonomics guidelines which would have prevented an estimated 4.6 million cases of musculo-skeletal injuries.
As a result of what he had seen in his years on the inside, Peter Infante had this to say: “They’re not interested in protecting workers, they’re protecting industry, so that’s why I left.” Infante, who quit the agency in 2000, said that “most OSHA employees with the qualifications to develop health standards had left the agency and have not been replaced, while the few who remain have been reassigned. As a result, the agency lacks the capacity to develop regulations, even if it wanted to.”
In the killing fields of U.S. industry, workers are maimed or killed for nothing—or rather, they are killed and maimed while producing profits for the rich—which is nothing to die for. Environmental destruction, disease, and death are factored into the costs of production with the same calculated callousness as casualties of war are factored into military campaigns. Government ‘safety’ agencies even use terminology simliar to that used by the Pentagon.
In war, civilians killed and wounded by the military are referred to as “collateral damage.” In much the same way, the government sets ‘economically feasible’ levels for workplace injury and death. So, if you get cancer at work or lose a limb to an accident, there’s nothing to worry about—it’s “economically feasible”! The most horrifying fact is that 99 percent of these injuries and deaths are preventable with modern-day technology and science.
Dangerous and often deadly working conditions and exposure to toxic chemicals affects us all.
All workers in the U.S. must unite to demand safety laws that make it unprofitable for the boss to put workers at risk. OSHA and NIOSH need to be massively funded and reformed from top to bottom with the direct participation of working people!
For an end to “economically feasible” levels of injury and death at the workplace! High standards must be set and enforced in order to protect working people’s “unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s clear that when it comes to pursuing profits, employers have no regard for the lives of working people. It follows therefore, that workers should control the shop floor in order to avoid preventable injuries. Any meaningful reform of workplace safety can only be carried out and enforced by working people themselves. No one will look out for our interests but us!
For the unconditional right of all workers to strike over safety issues, in order to protect their health and well-being.
As long as the means of production are privately owned there will always be the tendency to minimize spending on safety. Under capitalism we can and must struggle for better protections, but for real safety, we need workers’ ownership and control of the means of production. Only workers themselves know what’s best for workers!
Workers’ health and safety must come before profits!
Roland Sheppard is a retired house painter and former Business Representative of Painters District Council #8.