September 25, 2007

In the last forty years, vast numbers of synthetic substances have infiltrated the workplace and penetrated the environment. Over two million chemical compounds which do not exist in nature have now become an integral part of our daily lives.(1) Some thousand new compounds are introduced every year.(2) In sum, we now confront the thorough "chemicalization of industry."(3) As these substances have been integrated into thousands of jobs, their potential health effects have not been taken fully into account. Because most new chemicals are assumed to be harmless, workers become "human guinea pigs for industrial processes."(4) A decade ago, a former Surgeon General estimated that 65% of industrial workers were exposed to toxic materials or harmful physical conditions.(5) A more recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded that 25% of the entire workforce is exposed to death or illness-causing substances. Moreover, less than 5% of the country's work-places have adequate industrial hygiene services.(6) The toll which these new substances have taken on workers is high. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare estimates that 390,000 people contract occupational illnesses each year, and that 100,000 deaths result from occupational disease.(7) Cancer specialists suggest that 50% of all cancers are complicated by occupational factors.(8) These illnesses are not the result only of modern hazards, as workers continue to suffer from exposure to heat, noise, cotton dust and other "non-chemical" dangers, which have existed for decades or even centuries. Yet, with the addition of thousands of synthetic chemicals, the problem of workers' health has assumed new, critical proportions. The causal relationship between disease and industry goes beyond the workplace. Along with the chemicalization of industry, deaths among the general population which result from cancer have risen from 64 per 100,000 in 1900, to 162.8 in 1970, to 171.5 in 1975.(9) New Jersey, a large producer of chemicals, has the highest cancer rate in the country, 14% higher than the national average.(10) Medical researchers now estimate that up to 90% of all cancer may be environmentally induced.(11) Clearly, the workplace is the source of many environmental hazards. Workers suffer the most severely, as they are victims of "double jeopardy." Their exposure is not confined to the factory. Industrial workers may carry dangerous chemicals or dusts home to their families on their clothes. Certain substances have been shown to mutate reproductive cells, so that future generations are affected. And, since workers often live in the vicinity of their worksites, their neighbor-hoods may be among the most polluted. Current death and illness statistics reveal only the tip of the iceberg insofar as they largely represent past exposure to toxins. Depending on the length of the latency period after original exposure to a toxin, many of the cancers and respiratory diseases that are now active were contracted from 10 to 40 years ago. Given the exponential rise in the number of chemicals utilized during that period, predictions for the future are even more alarming. Most governmental and private studies of occupational safety and health approach these problems through a medical focus. These studies assume that once the medical or physiological causes of occupational disease are discovered, government or industry will naturally proceed to bring about their eradication. These assumptions are belied by the growing awareness of the problems and the still uncontrolled spread of unnatural disease and death. In this Report, we will examine why occupational safety and health problems are becoming more acute and why the rapidly growing problem must be looked at as an integral, rather than accidental, by-product of the capitalist organization of production. Approached narrowly as a medical issue, the economic roots of the problem are not revealed. In order to understand the source of hazardous work, occupational safety and health must be located within its socioeconomic framework. By focusing on the relations of production, the economic forces which create health problems and obstruct their solution are starkly illuminated. At the worksite, where workers must bear the consequences of new and untested products, irreconcilable differences between capital and labor over health issues are most visible. Investment in protective equipment is a cost of production which capitalists attempt to minimize in order to protect profits. As long as profits remain the goal of production, and workers can be replaced, workers' health will tend to be sacrificed. Capital's control over occupational safety and health is two-fold. Not only does capital determine production methods, it also controls information about substances used. Workers can be kept ignorant of the dangers to which they are exposed, or if they become aware and demand protections, can be replaced. Instead of conceding to health demands, employers can force workers to choose between their jobs and their lives. Demands for even the most minimal safety protections challenge capital's hegemony over the means of production. Workers' attempts to gain a strong voice in determining working conditions threaten to undermine existing power relations. Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) explained that management's position has always been that "running a plant is their business and no one is going to tell them how to run a facility."(12) SAFETY DOESN'T PAY Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred!... I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled .... It is up to the working people to save themselves. Rose Schneiderman of the Women's Trade Union League after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.(13) If the manner in which capital has dealt with occupational safety since the turn of the century is an indication of how health problems will be treated, we can expect only few improvements in the near future. Historically, the existence of dangerousworking conditions and the prison-like atmosphere of the shop have demonstrated employers' lack of concern for the wellbeing of workers. Even the most crude safety precautions, such as simple guards for machines, did not exist. Immigrants, blacks and women did the dirtiest and most dangerous work, so that the accident rates among these groups were even higher than the average. Because safety experts have estimated that the death rate from accidents in 1900 may have been double that of the present,(14) it is widely assumed that the factory conditions of the past have changed. Management has worked hard to convince us that their factories are clean and that modern technology has made hazardous work obsolete. Most importantly, management claims that the social relations of 1900 have ended, giving way to an era of benevolent capitalism in which capital and labor work together and share the fruits of technological progress. Clearly, since 1900 some improvements have been made in the workplace. Yet, the continuation of unsafe work practices demonstrates that benevolent capitalism is more fiction than fact. In the past 30 years, more than 40,000 workers have died on the job, more than all those Americans killed during World War II.(15) In the 1960's alone, accident rates rose by about 30%.(16) The Department of Labor estimates that 2.5 million workers are disabled annually. Moreover, one study commissioned by the Department of Labor concluded that this figure may represent only one tenth of the actual toll.(17) Management contends that these remaining occupational safety problems are mostly due to worker carelessness. BLAMING THE VICTIM In the 20's, the concept of "accident proneness" as a part of human nature was incorporated into the vocabulary of industrial psychologists and defenders of industry's negligence.(18) Groups such as the National Safety Council concluded that the responsibility for high accident rates rested primarily with the individual worker and advocated safety campaigns as a solution. They did not promote safety equipment as strongly. Blaming the victim is still widely used as a tactic to make the individual worker feel responsible for injury, and this argument has been extended to rationalize away management's responsibility for occupational health. "Accident proneness" has been altered to "cancer proneness." Dupont Chemical Corp. is one of the growing number of companies which genetically screens applicants for susceptability to lung disease and sickle cell trait.The company may exclude applicants from certain jobs on the basis of these test results.(19) Rather than eliminate the hazard, General Motors does not "allow women to work on lead exposure jobs unless they are incapable of having children.... "(20) When other excuses fail, capital has attempted to turn health liabilities into assets. Commenting on the fact that DBCP, a pesticide, causes sterility, a spokesperson for the National Peach Council said, "While involuntary sterility caused by a manufactured chemical may be bad, it is not necessarily so. After all, there are many people now paying to have themselves sterilized to assure they will no longer be able to become parents."(21) Finally, industry displaces liability for occupational diseases with the argument that workers voluntarily choose their jobs and are free to sell their labor power elsewhere. In other words, workers are again given the impossible choice between their health and livelihood. NAIVETE ABOUT HEALTH HAZARDS A staff member of the United Electrical Workers succinctly stated another ruse industry uses to avoid responsibility for correcting health problems. "Capitalists know all there is to know about the manufacturing process, productivity, wages, etc. When it comes to making a profit, they know everything. When it comes to protecting labor, they know nothing."(22) Not all health problems can be anticipated. Long latency periods of many diseases have prevented the correlation of workers' illnesses to their exposure to hazards in the workplace. This situation is further aggravated if a particular labor force has been shifting from one plant to the next. Nevertheless, given both their direct access to knowledge about toxic substances and their ability to undertake medical examinations of the workforce, the naivete of manufacturers about health hazards must be seen as being largely self-imposed. The almost unbelievable fact that occupational health statistics were not compiled before 1972 and the inadequate current data-gathering methods attest to the low priority that has been given to investigating occupational health problems. Like the ostrich with its head in the sand, industry has tried to avoid confronting health problems by staying ignorant of their existence. Full knowledge of health problems, however, does not lead industry to establish protective measures. As early as 1941, public health officials published warnings that "human contact with PCB (polychlorinated biphenols) should be avoided." Nonetheless, production doubled from 20,000 tons in 1960 to 43,000 tons in 1970.(23) This chemical is still used in industry and still enters the human food chain when dumped into the environment. This is just one of the many examples of industry, with the support of industrial physicians, insurance companies and, at times, government officials, choosing to risk the lives of countless workers rather than reveal the lethal nature of toxic substances used in production. GOVERNMENT PULLED IN Faced with industry's intransigence, many groups concerned with occupational safety and health, including organized labor, pressured the federal government to correct the long-standing neglect of workplace health hazards. This campaign culminated in the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) of 1970. The OSHAct mandates that every employer in the private sector involved in interstate commerce must furnish each employee with a task and workplace free from death- or harm-causing agents. The principal agencies created to implement this goal are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). OSHA has the authority to set and enforce safety and health standards and to inspect workplaces for compliance. NIOSH conducts research and recommends standards to OSHA. Despite these reforms, OSHA is still a long way from making the workplace healthy and safe. The promulgation of safety and health standards has proceeded at an incredibly slow pace. For instance, since the Act was passed, OSHA has only added 17 new carcinogen standards to those which had previously existed. At this rate, if NIOSH and OSHA continue to regulate on a substance-by-substance basis, the Government Accounting Office estimates that it will take OSHA 100 years to establish standards for those toxins already identified, without even addressing the new chemicals that are introduced daily.(24) The enforcement of the standards has also been insufficient. With only 1,400 inspectors, many of whom are ex-company safety employees, OSHA can only inspect about 2% of the nation's worksites each year.(25) Even when inspections do take place, OSHA has little leverage to force compliance. The maximum fine it can levy is $1,000, but as of the end of 1975, the average fine was less than $25.(26) Industry has not been forced to make the necessary investments in safety and health equipment to comply with standards. In fact, between 1972 and 1977, the proportion of total capital expenditure devoted to safety and health protections actually declined.(27) OSHA has never gathered compliance statistics for any of its standards. Yet, the figures on capital expenditures corroborate a Government Accounting Office report which concluded that OSHA has had no overall impact on health conditions.(28) Since its inception, OSHA has been under serious attack by industry. One argument used against it is that jobs are lost as a result of occupational safety and health regulations. The data collected thus far, however, contradict this claim. For example, the manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) argued that OSHA regulations would cost 500,000 jobs, but less than 100 people were actually laid off, and prices rose by only 3%.(29) Employment studies indicate that if the expansion of protective equipment manufacturing is considered, OSHA regulations have not caused a net loss of jobs nationwide.(30) Nevertheless, the possibility of job loss has been a serious problem for OSHA and industry has been able to use this possibility to their full advantage. Often, manufacturers threaten to close down or to run away to either another state or country if stiff regulations are implemented. These threats are used strategically to prevent workers from voicing their demands. Another force working against OSHA comes from the fact that for every proposed standard, OSHA must complete economic impact studies. It must present information on the hidden costs of occupational injury and disease, such as tax loss, welfare costs and increased absenteeism. This is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. In 1976, Morton Corn, then head of OSHA, said that of the $10.8 million budgeted to develop new health standards, $86.3 million was used to prepare inflation impact statements.(31) THE CURRENT OSHA ADMINISTRATION The current Occupational Safety and Health Administration has attempted to improve upon the agency's inadequate past performance. One step in this direction has been the drafting of a "Right to Know" regulation which would require all companies to make available to workers lists of the chemical substances used in the workplace, cross- referenced with their trade names. All hazardous products must be labelled as such, with safe handling and emergency procedures provided. Current regulations require that only those workers exposed to OSHA-regulated toxins be informed of the hazards to which they are daily exposed. Under the proposed law, no exemption would be made for what the present head of OSHA, Eula Bingham, calls the "trade secrets camouflage."(32) Another proposal is the "Carcinogen Standard" which would eliminate the time-consuming substance-by-substance approach to regulation. All agents known to cause cancer would be identified as "carcinogens" and subsequently workers' exposure would have to be reduced to the lowest feasible level. Further, if possible a non-carcinogenic substance would have to be substituted. Although the meanings of feasibility and substitutes are vague, this policy is a significant departure from the past assumption that a safe level of exposure to carcinogens exists. These OSHA policies are the result of pressure on the Carter Administration to appoint progressive people from the science and medical communities. The officials NACLA spoke with recognized that OSHA cannot police all of the nation's worksites, arguing that the extent of their success will depend on pressure and lobbying on the part of workers. Despite its limitations, the establishment of OSHA is a progressive gain and illustrates a degree of flexibility within the system to respond to workers' demands. As well, the creation of this type of regulatory agency lends legitimacy to the State as a protector of the "public interest." However, the State apparatus is not a neutral observer to the conflict of interest between labor and capital. In fact, it is the role of the State to prolong the system of production for profit and not to transform it, which would be necessary to really solve the problem of safety and health. Ultimately, "the principle function of the preventative programs in the past and present has been to give 'symbolic reassurance' to workers that they are being protected."(33) Furthermore, attacking the problem of occupational safety and health only on a national level is inadequate. OSHA cannot address the mobility of capital and its option to avoid compliance by relocating in an unregulated country. The lack of regulation means that as long as another country is receptive to hazardous production, the problem of safety and health will not be solved. In this Report, we will investigate the nature of asbestos production both in the United States and Latin America. Through the specifics of one industry, we hope to illustrate how the problem of occupational safety and health is rooted within the organization of production. REFERENCES I. INTRODUCTION: YOUR JOB OR YOUR LIFE 1. U.S. News and World Report, July 11, 1977. 2. New York Times, April 13, 1976, 3. Larry Agran, The Cancer Connection and What We Can Do About It, (Boston: Houghton Mifflen Company, 1977). 4. Frank Wallick, United Auto Workers, quoted in New York Times, March 4, 1974. 5. David Gaynor, "Materialist Epidemiology Applied to Occupational Health and Safety," HMO Packet No. 2, The Social Etiology of Disease (Part I), c/o Health PAC, 17 Murray St., NY, NY 10007. 6. New York Times, October 2, 1977. 7. The President's Report on Occupational Safety and Health, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1972), Document No. 2915. 8. Nicholas Ashford, Crisis in the Workplace: Occupational Disease and Injury, (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1976), p.11. 9. New York Times, October 6, 1977. 10. New York Times, December 31, 1976. 11. Ashford, op.cit., p.10. 12. Daniel M. Berman, The Politics of Occupational Death and Disability, (unpublished manuscript, 1972), p.41. Available from the Occupational Health Project Medical Committee on Human Rights, Chicago, Ill. 13. Irving Howe, World of our Fathers, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), pp.305-306. 14. Daniel M. Berman, "Why Work Kills-A Brief History of Occupational Safety and Health in the United States," International Journal of Health Services, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1977, p. 6 7 . 15. Mike Merrill, "Capitalism and Health," Political Economy for Workers, (unpublished manuscript, 1977), p. 2 . Institute for Labor Education and Research, NY, NY. 16. HealthlPAC Bulletin, No. 44 (September, 1972), p.15. 17. Ashford, op.cit., p.92. 18. Berman, 1977, p. 7 6 . 19. Survival Kit, a Masscosh Health and Safety Newsletter, No. 4 (Fall, 1977), p. 1 6 . 20. Michigan Free Press, June 26, 1977. 21. New York Times, September 27, 1977. 22. Howie Forman, Research Assistant of the United Electrical Workers (UE), workshop on occupational safety and health, UE Annual Convention, September 12, 1977. 23. Barry Commoner,"The Promise and Perils of Petrochemicals," New York Times Magazine, September 25, 1977, p.70. 24. New York Times, October 6, 1977. 25. U.S. News and World Report, January 16, 1978 and July 11, 1977. 26. Edward F. Denison, "Effects of Selected Changes in the Institutional and Human Environment Upon Output per Unit of Input," Survey of Current Business, Vol. 58, No. 1 (January, 1978) p. 3 6 . 27. "5th Annual McGraw-Hill Survey Investment in Employee Safety and Health," Economics Department, McGraw-Hill Publication Company, New York, May 27, 1977, p. 3 . 28. New York Times, October 6, 1977. 29. New York Times, March 1, 1976. 30. Ashford. op.cit., p.21. 31. New York Times, December 20, 1976. 32. U.S. News and WorldReport, January 16, 1978. 33. Daniel Berman, 1972, op.cit., p.15.

Tags: workplace safety, capitalism, OSHA

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