Facing South
Facing South

The risks of being employed

By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

For those out of work for an extended period, unemployment can feel like a slow death.

Perhaps the only thing worse is the rapid death or serious injury experienced by many of those who have jobs but are forced to toil in unsafe conditions. As the ongoing economic crisis makes it difficult for workers to resist speed-ups and the hazards that go along with them, workplace accidents continue to mount. More than a dozen people are killed on the job each day.

New evidence of employer abuse comes in the latest statistics for the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations’ Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). According to the August 1 issue of Bloomberg BNA's Labor Relations Week, the number of workplaces that have egregiously bad safety records has doubled in the past year, reaching 330 establishments.

OSHA created the SVEP in 2010 in an effort to focus attention on those employers that expose their workers to the most dangerous conditions, as indicated by the occurrence of serious accidents and citations for significant violations of safety and health standards. This is a laudable initiative, but it is likely that OSHA's list includes only a small fraction of the corporate malefactors.

One of the companies missing from the compilation is BP, with which OSHA recently reached a $13 million settlement relating to the remaining unresolved violations at the company’s notorious Texas City refinery. BP previously paid more than $70 million in connection with hundreds of violations at the facility, where 15 workers were killed and more than 170 injured in a 2005 explosion (photo).

BP's payments are far from the norm. In fact, the 2012 edition of the AFL-CIO's overview of safety and health practices concludes that typical penalties -- which after a recent increase still average only $2,100 for serious violations cited by OSHA and only $942 for those brought by state agencies -- are too low to serve as a real deterrent to employer negligence.

Most of the firms on the SVEP list are smaller companies, with the largest number in the construction sector.  One larger corporation is Cooper Tire & Rubber. In November 2010 Cooper was cited by OSHA for 10 violations for failing to provide adequate protection from hazardous chemicals at its plant in Findlay, Ohio. The following June, Cooper was cited for similar violations at its plant in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Failure to provide a safe work environment is not the only way that Cooper mistreats its workers. The tire maker is also among the large employers that have used the recession as a pretext for taking a hard line on collective bargaining. Last November, Cooper locked out workers in Findlay represented by the Steelworkers union after they rejected a contract offer from the profitable firm that eliminated wage guarantees and increased healthcare premiums. Back in 2008, when Cooper was losing money, the union agreed to $30 million in concessions that helped it survive. The lockout ended in February after workers approved a somewhat less onerous offer.

Cooper's strategy is similar to that being employed by Caterpillar, which despite enjoying record profits, is seeking deep concessions from its union workers. In May more than 750 workers at Cat's plant in Joliet, Illinois, took what is a rare step these days -- they went on strike. They were willing to take the risk in the face of a company proposal to freeze wages for six years for workers with more seniority and to set wage rates for newer employees according to labor market conditions rather than collective bargaining. There appears to be no end in sight for the walkout.

Long-term unemployment can take a terrible toll on families, but many of those with jobs go to work each day facing risks to their life or their livelihood. The recession, intensified by corporate disregard for workplace safety and labor laws, weighs heavy on all of the 99%.

(Photo of BP's Texas City refinery fire via Dirt Diggers Digest.)

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