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Leo W. Gerard

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Dying for Work

Posted: 03/12/2012 8:15 am

Across America, people are dying for work. It's not because they're unemployed. It's because they work for corporations that don't care if they die.

Every day, 12 workers die on the job in America -- often because a corporation has defied regulations or ignored standard safety procedures. Many more die prematurely from work exposure to toxic materials.

If corporations are people, as Mitt Romney and the Republican majority on the Supreme Court claim, then their privileges as humans come with the responsibility to act humanely. Corporate-people must fulfill their obligations to workers and communities. Profit can't be their sole raison d'etre. That's not how it is with flesh-and-blood people. If it were, then society would condone profit-motivated murder, like killing a parent for insurance money. Now that they're people, corporations have an even greater duty to prevent deaths on the job. And if they don't, they must be held accountable in criminal court the same way a money-grubbing son would be if he murdered his parents for the life insurance.

Workplace explosions get all the attention. Three that occurred two years ago next month killed 47 workers. Within 18 days, seven died at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.; 29 in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and 11 on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Writing about industrial homicide in the American Criminal Law Review last year, Jane F. Barrett, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and director of its environmental law clinic, said of these explosions:

"In all of these cases, safety procedures were bypassed or standard operating procedures were ignored due to pressures on plant personnel to save time and/or money."

There it is -- the profit factor. Making money trumping worker survival. Occasionally, people accept risk when personal gain is held out as a possibility. But in the workplace, corporations take the gains while imposing the risks on workers. Barrett put it this way:

"And in all cases, the brunt of the consequences was borne by those who did not share in the economic rewards of the corporate non-compliance (with regulations)."

In 4,500 such instances each year, the worker's death is quick and the cause obvious. In many more cases, however, the deaths are slower, and the reason -- workplace exposure to toxic substances -- less evident. Workplace exposure causes more than 40,000 premature deaths annually from conditions like cancer and neurological disease.

Beryllium, primarily used in weapons production, is one of those deadly substances. It causes a lung disorder called chronic beryllium disease (CBD). It is so toxic that no safe level has ever been established. Finally, this year, decades after studies established the inadequacy of the 60-year-old "taxi cab standard" that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) used for worker exposure to beryllium, a more stringent level may be set. The exposure level suggested in February by my union, the United Steelworkers, and Materion Brush, the only U.S. producer of pure beryllium metal, is 90 percent lower than the current limit.

The taxi standard was set by two scientists riding in the back of a cab in New York in 1948 as concern rose about CBD suffered by workers using beryllium and by residents of surrounding communities. Over decades, industry executives concerned about compliance costs and government officials who feared slowed weapons production obstructed imposition of stricter exposure limits. Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson admitted it in 2000, telling a reporter:

"Priority one was production of nuclear weapons. . .[the] last priority was the safety and health of the workers that build these weapons."

That's treating workers like collateral damage. It's not human. Or humane.

Similarly, mining industry officials delayed publication of two studies establishing a connection between deadly lung cancer and exposure to heavy diesel exhaust in mines. In an attempt to suppress the information that could lead to costly regulations protecting workers, the industry began challenging the research in 1996. With litigation and other measures, the mining industry succeeded repeatedly in postponing publication until this month.

Sustaining deadly exposure to improve profit margins -- that's not humane.

As it stands now, corporate-people who commit industrial homicide are cited and fined. This is not effective. Over the past decade, the federal government repeatedly fined BP tens of millions for violations, including the highest fine in OSHA for an explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 170. That didn't change BP's behavior. Five years later, the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and seriously injured 17.

Similarly, Massey had been cited and fined for years for flagrant and chronic mine safety violations. In 2006, two miners suffocated while trying to escape a fire in a Massey mine. Four years later, 29 workers died in Massey's Upper Big Branch mine.

The only way to make a difference is to hold accountable those executives and managers who are the actual flesh-and-blood of corporate-people, the executives and managers who determine corporate culture, who decide to violate standards and risk workers' lives in exchange for profits. Professor Barrett, in her law review article, described how it could work:

"Personal accountability, which creates a risk to an individual that he might go to jail as a result of decisions he makes, can change behavior and drive deterrence."

A real threat of prison time would focus the CEO mind on worker safety.

Barrett recommends a Seaman's Manslaughter Law to protect land-based workers. The Seaman's law criminalized misconduct and negligence by ship operators that led to the death of sailors or passengers. Those convicted, including corporate executives who ran the shipping businesses and condoned the recklessness, faced 10 years in prison.

The authors of this law had it right. Corporate-people -- that is boards of directors, CEOs, managers and supervisors -- who believe their own freedom is at stake will be far less inclined to gamble with workers' lives to save a buck.

 

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