Economy

Hightower: Is Death the Price of Having a Job? In Some Corporations It Seems Like It

Death ought not be the price of having a job. But corporate deaths are happening every day, and our "leaders" are accepting it. It's a national disgrace.

Their names probably won't mean mean anything to you, but these people ought to have some modicum of personal recognition: Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale "Bubba" Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Gordon Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Kleppinger, Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, and Adam Weise. These are the 11 workers who were killed when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20.

For months after the disaster, national media outlets featured extensive coverage of BP's calamitous well -- as they should -- showing us satellite pictures of the spreading plumes of pollution, footage of dead pelicans, estimates of the ecological horror on the ocean floor, analyses of the frantic efforts to stop the oil, commentaries on the astonishing arrogance of corporate executives, feature stories about the slick's impact on Gulf tourism, interviews with lawmakers demanding much tougher environmental protections, etc...

But what about those people? Most of the 11 were in their twenties and thirties. They had families and futures. Yet, aside from an occasional off-handed reference to the general body count, their fate had pretty much been dropped from discussion about the cost of our country's cavalier ethic of "drill, baby, drill." And what about the 17 other rig workers who were injured in the Deepwater explosion, many of them badly burned and maimed. There's barely been any media mention of the price they paid for the corporate rush to complete this well, much less any follow-up on their painful and costly ordeal.

I'm not pleading here for maudlin coverage of victims -- but for ACTION! Just as the Deepwater catastrophe is a screaming wake-up call and a vital teaching moment for environmental protection, so it is for the protection of America's workforce. Eleven people didn't merely perish in the Gulf on April 20; they were killed by a careless cabal of corporate greedheads and ideological boneheads. It's a case of institutional murder -- and it's a shockingly common occurrence in our country.

LITTLE-KNOWN STATISTIC: Each day, on average, 14 American workers are killed on the job. They're killed by explosions, trench cave-ins, electrocutions, falls, suffocations, fires, poisonings, manglings, and so forth. Another 50,000 to 60,000 workers die each year from cancers, black lung, and other diseases caused by their jobs.

This is murder, because nearly all of these deaths are preventable with proper equipment, work rules, and regulatory enforcement.

This is murder, because CEOs, boards of directors, and financiers know the deaths will occur, but continue to take shortcuts on worker safety and health in order to goose up their profits, secure in the knowledge that they can get away with it. Even if caught, they merely pay a minimal fine.

This is murder, because lawmakers and regulators (national, state, and local) turn a blind eye to its pervasiveness and constancy, insisting that each "incident" is an isolated event that should not interfere with the drive for corporate competitiveness. This is murder, because the media establishment only yelps when one occurs, then goes back to sleep as reform is stalled and the system drifts back to business as usual.

Multiple killings at least make the news. This year alone, in addition to the 11 Deepwater deaths, we've had mass funerals for:

  • Six workers killed on February 7 in an explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems power plant in Middletown, Connecticut.
  • Seven killed in the April 2 explosion of a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington.
  • TWENTY-NINE coal miners killed when Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine exploded on April 5 in West Virginia.

Mostly, though, the dead go one at a time, causing little public notice beyond local media reports carrying such anonymous headlines as "Scaffold Collapses, Man Dies," or "Fire Kills Worker at Local Plant." Death ought not be the price of having a job. But corporate deaths are happening every day, and our "leaders" are accepting it. It's a national disgrace.

Workers Are Cheap

In 2008 (the most recent year for which the government has complete statistics), 5,214 workers were killed on the job, with an estimated 50,000 others succumbing to diseases produced by America's workplaces. In addition, more than 4.6 million worker injuries were reported in that year (a toll that grossly understates the problem, generally conceded to be more than twice as big, but not tallied because most injuries -- even serious ones -- go unreported).

This is a ghastly tally that other industrialized societies are simply unwilling to tolerate. Finland, Denmark, and Luxembourg are among 20 countries that rank better than the US in the number of workers killed or injured.

Why don't we do better? Because our country's corporate and governmental leaders consider wage-earners to be a dime a dozen, and because neither the media nor the political parties have been willing to make workplace death and injury an issue, much less focus on it as the scandal it is.

Imagine the urgent national response that would be generated in the media and Washington if 5,214 CEOs were killed in their executive suites each year!

Far from attacking the problem, our economic and political establishment attacks the one agency meant to help solve it: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. From the day that OSHA was created in 1971 (yes, under Nixon!), this law has been wildly assailed by corporations and their apologists as public enemy number one -- a massive, job-destroying, jack-booted, autocratic federal force roaming the country to impose its will on innocent bosses.

Get real. OSHA relies largely on the good-heartedness of corporate bosses to comply voluntarily with the law's mandate to protect workers from job hazards. In fact, agency inspections of worksites are exceedingly rare. Indeed, get this: there are no mandatory inspections, even for the most dangerous industries.

OSHA's enforcement budget, never large, has been steadily slashed. Even with a recent increase by Obama and Congress, the federal enforcement staff numbers 450 fewer today than in 1980, even though the size of our country's workforce has grown by 40 percent. There are now so few inspectors that the federal agency can only check out America's eight million job sites an average of once every 137 years.

With so few inspections, effective enforcement of the law must rely on strong, example-setting penalties for the violations that are found (usually through union complaints or through reported deaths and injuries). But OSHA penalties are a shameful joke. "Serious violations" of safety standards (those posing a probability of death or major physical harm) are subject to a maximum civil penalty of $7,000. Good grief. Fortune 500 corporations spend more than that each year on four-ply, extra-soft toilet tissue for their executive washrooms! Yet, even this meager maximum is hardly ever assessed. [WARNING: SHOCKING STATISTIC AHEAD] Last year, the average penalty for a serious OSHA violation was $965.

And if a worker actually is killed, what's the corporate penalty for that? The national average fine paid last year was an appalling $7,668. Here are a few typical cases:

  • In January 2009, a trench cave-in killed 22-year-old Andrew Keller in Freyburg, Ohio. Tumbusch Construction was cited for three serious OSHA violations and penalized $4,500.
  • In July 2009, in Batesville,Texas, one worker was killed and two injured when a natural gas pipeline ignited. L&J Roustabout Inc. was cited for three serious violations and fined $1,500.
  • In August 2009, Affordable Electric corporation was cited for five serious violations that led to the death of 28-year-old Andrea Taylor in Lamar, South Carolina. In a settlement with state OSHA officials, three of the violations were dropped and the corporation paid a $1,400 fine.

How do corporations avoid even the paltry maximum fines in the OSHA law? By having their lawyers game the system. Violations are routinely contested -- which stalls the process and ties up OSHA's limited legal staff in costly litigation.

Your friendly Walmart store, for example, is a ruthless staller. The world's largest retailer is presently trying to hogtie OSHA with a ridiculous attempt to escape a $7,000 fine for one of those serious violations. In 2008, a store on Long Island ran a heavily advertised super-sale on the day after Thanksgiving. A surging mass of 2,000 overeager shoppers was there for the 5 a.m. opening, assembling near doors marked with a sign announcing: "Blitz Line Starts Here."

When the doors opened, the restive crowd burst into the store, literally trampling to death Mr. Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old temporary WalMart "associate." Damour had no training for such a stampede and Walmart had no plan for crowd control. For this violation of safety protocols, OSHA assessed its maximum fine in 2009.

But -- Holy Sam Walton -- you'd think OSHA had offered a death penalty for the $258 billion-a-year giant. A pack of corporate lawyers filed a rash of legal mumbo jumbo and harassed witnesses in an all-out effort to quash the $7,000 fine. Nearly a fifth of the available attorney hours in OSHA's New York office have been diverted to this one case.

Meanwhile, during the lengthy appeals process, violators do not have to fix their dangerous workplace problems, thus endangering other workers. This puts enormous political and moral pressure on OSHA lawyers to settle for a pittance.

Yeah, but how about criminal penalties against bosses who knowingly allow life-threatening conditions to exist? First, the mere existence of such conditions is not a crime. A worker has to die before a company's willful violations of safety conditions rises to a criminal act. And -- PREPARE TO BE COMPLETELY APPALLED -- while willfully allowing conditions that kill workers is a crime under OSHA, it's only a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in jail. That really puts the "mean" in misdemeanor, doesn't it?

With such weak punishment and so few lawyers to go after the criminals, federal prosecutors rarely pursue these cases. In fact, in the 40-year life of OSHA, during which more than 360,000 workers were killed, only 79 criminal cases have been prosecuted. Convicted violators spent a total of only 89 months in jail -- an average of one month and one week each.

Compare this soft-on-crime approach to criminal prosecutions under our environmental laws. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency pursued 387 of these criminal cases, resulting in convictions that totaled 76 years of jail time and $96 million in penalties. That's far more cases, jail time, and fines in a single year than during the entire, four-decade history of OSHA.

The Work Ethic

Go at it hard, give it your all, be loyal, don't make trouble, obey the rules, respect authority, go the extra mile, whistle while you work, and, remember: there's no "I" in team.

Take Deepwater Horizon. It and other offshore rigs escape some of the tougher U.S. licensing requirements and safety rules because nearly all fly what are called flags of convenience -- a bit of maritime legalistic hokum that allows owners of the rig to avoid any real governmental regulation. (Deepwater was registered under the flag of the Marshall Islands, population 62,000.)

While the floating oil vessels are inspected by the Coast Guard for lifeboats, personal flotation devices, rails, etc..., they literally are beyond the reach of OSHA. The law restricts our nation's top worker safety agency to the three-nautical-mile limit, giving it no authority to protect Americans working 40 miles out in the Gulf, where Deepwater sat.

Also, the corporate culture at BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and other giants involved in Gulf oil production is virulently anti-union. The AFL-CIO reports that this industry is 100 percent non-union, thus avoiding the safety requirements and worker advocacy that comes from a good collective bargaining contract.

With no effective government oversight and no union watchdogs, workers on these operations are at the mercy of corporate whim -- a perfect formula for deadly disasters. BP -- which became huge in a hurry by swallowing such competitors as Amoco and Arco, then slashing costs (and expertise) by firing tens of thousands of workers -- is notorious even in the buccaneering oil industry for taking reckless risks and cutting corners on safety. The result is that the incalculable human and ecological damage BP caused at Deepwater is just the latest in a long string of cataclysms exploding from its wells, pipelines, and refineries.

In March 2005, for example, a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, blew sky high, killing 15 workers and maiming 170 others, many gruesomely. A two-year probe by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board pinned the fault on BP's pursuit of profit at the expense of workers: "The combination of cost-cutting, production pressures, and failure to invest caused a progressive deterioration of safety at the refinery," said the board's chairwoman. The report assailed BP's "culture of bad management and failure to recognize and correct problems." Another investigator, appointed by the corporation itself, says of top executives: "They were very arrogant and proud and in self-denial."

Apparently, they still are. An OSHA re-inspection of the Texas City plant last year found more than 700 safety violations, most of which were the same ones found after the 2005 blast.

The Price of Coal

Mine disasters are a sickening, recurring national media story. In just the past few years, 12 West Virginia coal miners died in the 2006 Sago disaster; two burned to death in a 2006 fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma mine in West Virginia; six miners and three rescuers perished in the 2007 collapse of Utah's Crandall Canyon mine; one miner in Wise County, VA died at Big Laurel Mining company; and, this year, 29 more were blown up in Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Yes, mining is dangerous, but Germany, Spain, Canada, and other major coal producers manage to do it without the mass carnage suffered by American workers. But those countries have real regulation; our miners are saddled with the toothless, industry-hugging Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Like OSHA, this agency makes occasional inspections (announced in advance), issues flurries of citations for safety violations and then watches powerlessly as coal corporations blithely ignore the citations.

Don Blankenship, the slippery CEO of coal giant Massey Energy, says bluntly: "We don't pay much attention to the violation count." I guess not! He's been cited for more than 3,000 since 1995, including nearly 500 last year, when his "punishment" totaled a pathetic $168,393 in fines (for a company with income of $2.3 billion in 2009).

On April 5 of this year, MSHA inspectors visited Massey's Upper Big Branch in the morning, issued two more citations and left. That afternoon, the mine detonated. Blankenship's response was less than comforting to the families of victims: "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process."

No, they aren't. Even MSHA has flatly declared that "Explosions in coal mines are preventable." What's happening in our mines is that an abnormal, corporate-governmental cabal is allowing the Blankenships of the world to become multimillionaires while miners die. Listen to the recent testimony by Randy Dingus, a coal miner since 1976 who's been underground in several Massey mines, including one called Lower Cedar Grove:

"To be honest, that was one of the most dangerous mines that I've ever been in. The way they run it and the conditions of the mine, it was pretty sad to put people in there. I know they had to make money, but... I stayed scared to death. This is the God's honest truth: I would go to work crying and come home crying because my nerves was so messed up over doing things that was unsafe and the way they treated ya. They treated ya awful, no respect."

Or listen to Stanley "Goose" Stewart, who survived the Upper Big Branch blast.

Testifying before Congress in June, he said that Massey bosses knew for months that the mine's ventilation system was a disaster waiting to happen: "They would fix it just good enough to [pass inspection], to get us to load coal again." In the days before the fatal explosion, says Stewart, there were "at least two fireballs," but management pressed the workers to keep at it, even though, as Stewart put it, "That area was a ticking time bomb."

Shamefull

In industry after industry (from poultry to chemicals, sweatshops to nail salons), careless disregard for safety and a preferential assertion of "profit rights" has become the norm. Even in the generally progressive city of Austin, Texas, where I live, seven construction workers were killed last year -- one by heat ex-haustion. Yet, a simple city council proposal to require periodic rest breaks and drinking water for these exposed workers has caused a furious reaction from the home builders association. "Is the City of Austin trying to usurp or take on the role and responsibility of OSHA?" cried the association's head. "I don't want that."

Lest you blink at the oddity of a business chieftain in the heart of teabag Texas demanding federal preemption of local control, note that OSHA has no rule requiring water breaks for construction crews.

From the huge disasters of Massey and BP, to the rank pettiness of denying a drink of water for fellow humans, corporate leaders are wallowing in an embarrassment of greed that's killing thousands of working people, while making a mockery of our society's professed ideals of fairness and justice. Come on -- we have to do better than this!

Good, effective, responsible reform proposals abound -- from labor law reforms to holding CEOs accountable for allowing preventable deaths. This month's "Do Something" box offers information, connections and actions to help us eliminate this national shame. This is a deep moral issue that defines who we are. Let's at least raise it to a level of public awareness, which is the first step toward public action.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the new book, "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow." (Wiley, March 2008) He publishes the monthly "Hightower Lowdown," co-edited by Phillip Frazer.
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