Economy

Recent Explosion Reveals Fatal Double Standard for Workers

As the recent explosion in the sugar factory shows, in industrial facilities, the drive for profits undermines safety.

Imagine the following scenario: A type of jet airliner explodes 281 times during a 12-year period, killing119 passengers and injuring 718 others. As a result, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends new mandatory safety standards to halt these explosions, but that the airline industry and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stall the process, and rely instead on voluntary measures. Then, a year later another explosion demolishes the same style of airliner, killing another eight passengers and injuring at least 118 additional passengers and members of its crew.

A ludicrous scenario? Of course. The FAA and the airline industry would never allow that plane to fly. No one would be willing to fly it, or fly in it.

These devastating statistics, however, are real, but just not for airliners.

These statistics tell the tale of workers who confront combustible dust explosions in factories all across the nation -- a wide variety of dusts can ignite and explode if the conditions are right. These conditions are the probable cause of the explosion that tore apart the Imperial Sugar facility in Port Wentworth, Georgia on February 7, 2008.

Workers lucky enough to survive were seen running from the facility with burning skin hanging from their bodies. (There well may be more fatalities beyond the eight already reported.)

A year ago, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) (a federal agency modeled after the NTSB) issued a report calling for mandatory regulations to prevent such explosions. But as of the Port Wentworth catastrophe, the board had not received a written response from the Bush administration's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about what actions would be taken. The result of this laissez-affaire approach to regulation enabled the industry to police itself and we now see the fatal results.

Why this double standard?

Tony Mazzocchi (1926-2002), the labor leader most responsible for the passage of OSHA and who first called for the creation of the Chemical Safety Board, followed the money. In the airline industry, he argued, profits depend on safety. In industrial facilities, the drive for profits undermines safety.

While we mourn the deaths of the sugar workers in Georgia, it's not too long ago when we were mourning workers who died during another industrial food processing plant disaster.

In 1991, the Imperial Food chicken processing plant caught fire in Hamlet, North Carolina. Twenty-five people were killed and 54 injured in the fire as they were trapped behind locked fire doors-doors that the owner kept locked to allegedly keep people from stealing food. Due to a lack of inspectors, the plant had never received a safety inspection in 11 years of operation.

The horrendous safety conditions facing workers was why forty years ago Mazzocchi started the campaign to enact OSHA, and at the time had this to say:

I wanted people to know that thousands upon thousands of their fellow citizens were being assaulted daily, and that the police-in this case the federal government-had done nothing to remedy the situation. In short I wanted them to know that murder was being committed in the workplace, and that no one was bothering about it.

Starved for funds, limited by court rulings, pressed by corporate lobbyists and crippled by the ideology of deregulation, OSHA is failing to adequately protect workers. More than 15 workers each day are killed on the job -- 5,703 in 2006. And most experts agree that the vast majority of these deaths were preventable.

Even more egregious is that OSHA knew about the dangers of dust explosions, as it headlined a bulletin issued on July 31, 2005, "Combustible Dust in Industry: Preventing and Mitigating the Effects of Fire and Explosions." The bulletin is filled with graphic descriptions of prior deadly explosions in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana, and what is needed to prevent future incidents.

The Bush administration took care to make sure that despite the findings and the suggestions for improvements, that the bulletin was "not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. The Bulletin is advisory in nature, informational in content, and is intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace."

The toothless bulletin didn't work. And Mazzocchi, 40 years ago, knew OSHA would not work either until workers on the job were deputized to conduct their own inspections. Currently OSHA has so few inspectors that it would take 70 years to inspect all the job sites in South Carolina.

"An employer doesn't have to be an Einstein to figure out that you probably won't be inspected," Mazzocchi said in 1991. The only workable solution, he argued, would be to train at least one worker in every facility to serve as a deputized inspector, legally empowered to order corrective action, then and there.

Such a radical scheme would be certain to draw stiff resistance from corporate leaders and politicians still clinging to deregulation and voluntary workplace safety rules. But it is highly likely that idea of deputized workers would ring true to the families of workers in Port Wentworth, Georgia.




 

Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute and the Public Institute in New York, is the author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi (Chelsea Green, Nov. 2007)

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