Stopping Workplace “Accidents” Requires Public Purpose

I concede that accidents happen.

When, with the right of way, a sober driver unintentionally hits a disoriented pedestrian crossing the street, that’s an accidental crash.  When a waiter with five plates on his arms drops a plate of steak, that’s an accident.  It is tragically accidental for a professional swimmer to drown during a midnight dip.

But when the executive board of a multi-million dollar enterprise, in flagrant disregard of the law and safety standards, approves the faulty placement of ammonium nitrate that eventually spreads a fire and kills 15 people, that’s no accident.  It’s dismal and regrettable, but, if the findings of late June’s Senate hearings are to be trusted, hardly accidental.

I wouldn’t belabor the point if this were just semantics.  The danger in calling the West Fertilizer mishap and workplace deaths mere “accidents” is that the label exonerates people who make the very deliberate decisions that engender and increase the risks of injury and death.  An “accident,” as nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence of random events that can be neither predicted nor systemically prevented, does not cry out for structural change, but “preventable workplace fatalities” definitely do.

The fatal West Fertilizer catastrophe captures our attention because it wounded more than 100 people.  Such devastation makes us seek out the events preceding it, which are pervaded not only with giant departures from law, but glaring flaws in regulatory oversight and prevention.  According to Texas A&M safety expert John Mannann, OSHA’s decades of absence from the plant left it susceptible to ruin, for a competent inspection would have led the company to install firewalls and separate ammonium nitrate from flammable materials.  When OSHA possesses the organizational strength and resources necessary to inspect facilities regularly, these “accidents” are substantially less likely to happen.

Because we in this country have a tendency to focus more on transient headlines than on prolonged social realities, we will perhaps restrict our discussion of workplace dangers to the West Fertilizer episode and cataclysmic events like it.  But, in so doing, we will end up ignoring the systematic failures that, sadly, make West Fertilizer only a minute part of the problem.  Workplace injuries in America are neither aberrant nor unavoidable, two characterizations that tend to go hand in hand.  They are instead predictable and avoidable, meaning that we can reduce injuries simply by reorienting the way we think about workplace casualties.

First, we must understand that, generally, it’s not through innocent absent-mindedness that workplace fatalities are allowed to happen.  Managers strive endlessly to ensure product quality, so they clearly aren’t just forgetful or careless regarding their work.  In fact, companies flout workplace safety standards out of calculated unconcern for safety.  Most companies handling flammable chemicals en-masse don’t use firewalls, thus endangering thousands of lives, and at least 7,000 hazardous facilities “remain active across the industry” without sufficient oversight.  Furthermore, a 2010 study found that 65 percent of OSHA inspections lead to at least one citation and that most workplaces aren’t fully compliant with OSHA regulations.

Thousands of American companies don’t “just happen” to be making the same mistakes.  The mentality of many managerial boards is sculpted for “efficiency” and revenue’s benefit alone, producing practices that are difficult for safety measures to penetrate.  When a product is defective, we don’t absolve the CEO by calling him innocently absent-minded, so when an entire workplace is defective, let’s not treat him any differently.

Next, inexpensive compliance with OSHA regulations saves lives.  “Sloping, shoring and shielding” are not only cheap, but are required by OSHA, and are still ignored to the fatal detriment of at least one worker a week who gets trapped in a trench cave-in.  35 percent of 738 construction deaths in 2011 resulted from falls that secure harnesses, guardrail systems, and personal fall arrest systems could have prevented.  The materialization of these hazards should come as no surprise, as OSHA’s fall protection requirements are violated more frequently than are any of its other regulations.

Finally, thousands of annual workplace fatalities have shown us that, especially when unemployment is high, risky working conditions don’t scare off potential employees who have no other options.  In other words, when managers don’t have to rely on safe working conditions to attract employees, they ignore safety regulations until the law forces them not to.  States can aggressively discourage dangerous work practices by declining to enter contracts with repeat OSHA violators.  OSHA should itself receive funding to employ more compliance officers who, as of this year, each regulate roughly 59,000 workers who, naturally, rarely encounter an OSHA inspector.

28 deaths at Sandy Hook, as well as 12 deaths and 70 injuries in Aurora, fundamentally altered our understanding of domestic security, as they well should have.  These events became calls to action to change our gun laws.  We may squabble over how to do it, but nobody questions the necessity for dialogue and policy change.

Over 4,500 on-the-job fatalities a year should be sufficient to spawn a similar conversation regarding the dangerous conditions under which too many Americans are forced to work.

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Posted in Criminal Justice

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