September 25, 2007

The problem of occupational safety and health is complex, and historically has been shrouded by many deep misconceptions. We
have seen that unsafe work environments are not due to insufficient medical or technical expertise, nor are they a natural and necessary outcome of technological progress. Our
analysis has demonstrated, rather, that the roots of the problem can be found within capitalist relations of production and that therefore, occupational safety and health is integrally linked to all aspects of work in capitalist society.

Under these circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult to clarify labor's options and strategies. Yet, as we have seen, a heightened militancy among workers over occupational safety and health has already developed. The "trade secret" of industrial disease is slowly being cracked. Victories have been won, and while few in number, their success has shown
others that worker demands can be won through struggle.

In addition, the recent furor over OSHA and the particularly scandalous episodes of industrial cover-up and abuse have brought wide publicity to the problem in an unprecedented way. Although these developments have not yet rallied the public interest and concern the way broader environmental issues
have, they have now definitely emerged from a long history of obscurity to a place in the general public eye.

Increasingly, therefore, unions are being forced to seriously address the issue of occupational safety and health. It is now a key issue in strikes and organizing campaigns, and the appearance of union articles and newspapers on safety and health is becoming more common. There is also a greater union
emphasis on establishing occupational safety and health committees at the worksite, or in revitalizing existing ones. Further, some locals have been able to concretize safety and
health protections into contract language.

Occupational safety and health has also been put on the agenda of a number of progressive groups, which have created a network of support for workplace struggles. For example, special regional projects and committees made up of labor representatives and health activists have sprung up around the
country. More medical research is being conducted on toxic substances which is attempting to reverse the "innocent until
proven guilty" assumption about new chemicals.

And it must be remembered that some toxins such as asbestos have been regulated; others have been banned. Although few in
relation to the number of existing poisons, and often inadequate or poorly enforced, these standards have saved many workers' lives. These victories point to important concessions that can be pushed for and attained even within the structural limitations of capitalist society.


An organization which represents workers interests is the primary element of any successful struggle around safety and health issues. Because of the weaknesses of government agencies like OSHA, unorganized workers do not possess the necessary leverage to fight for safety and health rights. The victories which have been won have been largely due to the existence of a strong and militant union. Unions can provide an internal framework through which these problems can be addressed, such as grievance procedures, collective bargaining, and the contract. Organization is clearly the first step towards a safe and healthy workplace.

We have seen that full knowledge about work hazards is one of the most basic weapons which a union must have to impose safety measures. Once this information is attained and publicized, further action can be generated. Generally, it has taken workers many years to force this information from industry. All too often, unaware of the need for preventive safety measures, workers discover hazards too late, through their own illness and death. For these reasons, the "Right
to Know" legislation, which would reveal the presence of known toxins in the workplace, is important and should be supported. OSHA can aid workers by providing the information they need to carry on their own struggles.

No worker should have to compete with another for a job that kills. In order to neutralize the threat of having to face the "your job or your life" choice, provisions for greater job security should be struggled for. This type of security will enable workers to make tough demands for a clean workplace and to strike over dangerous conditions without putting their jobs and livelihoods in jeopardy. A statement by Tony Mazzocchi of the OCAW on environmental regulation applies equally well to occupational safety and health:

Every single environmental measure should have a provision in it for the protection of a worker's income and benefits. That would go a long way toward undermining the jobs versus environment argument. As it is now, the companies pick up the issue and run with it.(1)

Currently, all types of regulation are applicable only within this country. So that third world countries will not be encouraged to expose their working populations to industrial
slaughter, all regulations should apply to U.S. transnational companies and government or government-financed operations abroad. International regulations should be worked for as well, so that non-regulation abroad cannot be a major attraction for capital investment.

Finally, the production of carcinogenic substances should be more strictly regulated, so that we do not suffer the fatal consequences of the past; new chemicals should be screened
before being introduced into the marketplace. (The Toxic Substances Control Act grants the government the authority to require testing of new substances, but does not demand it. It is also deficient insofar as it explicitly exempts from regulation those products which are to be sold abroad.) The next step should be a licensing system which would require that all necessary safeguards be implemented before a
carcinogen could be manufactured or used. In general, unless an overriding social need can be shown, all toxins should be banned from production.

These proposals are essentially makeshift measures. They can further arm workers to reduce hazardous work practices, increase knowledge of the dangers they face and save some
lives in the process. But the struggle for even these limited gains will be an uphill battle because the central concern of capitalist production is increasing the margin of profit, not decreasing the hazards of production. As such, these measures treat only the "symptoms" and not the "disease."

The bottom line is not banning or controlling certain hazardous products, although fighting for these limited short-term improvements helps bring to the fore the fundamental issue: the organization and ownership of the
production process itself. Once it is understood that the problems of hazardous work are neither natural or inevitable, it is possible to imagine other ways to organize production.
Evaluating the societal need for a product and protecting the health of the workers who produce it should be the criteria for decision-making, instead of protecting profitability. Only then will health and work not be at odds. Workers' health will correctly be seen as a right and not a privilege.

1. Guardian, February 1, 1978.

Tags: workplace safety, capitalism, OSHA, labor organization, resistance

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