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The human costs of big business: preventable workplace disasters

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Fire at oil refineryWhat do the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, the fire at Exxon’s Beaumont, Texas refinery, the building collapse in Bangladesh, and injuries at American poultry processing plants have in common? They are all examples of employees going to work and getting injured or dying on the job. Everyday in America, 13 workers go to their job and never come home.

April 28 was Workers Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have suffered and died on the job from workplace injuries and diseases. Each death has left friends and family behind who have to pick up the pieces and move on with a new reality.

In many cases, the injuries and lives lost could have been prevented. Under the slogan “Job-killing regulations!” industry has fought for fewer regulations and less government oversight. Industry argues that more rules to follow and guidelines to meet result in lower productivity and fewer jobs. They have successfully lobbied government, on all levels, to create “toothless” regulations. However, reality reveals the true costs of deregulation – worker injuries, deaths, and in some cases—the devastation of entire communities.

The West Fertilizer Company plant, where the Texas explosion occurred on April 18, 2013, had not seen a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector in 28 years. The West Fertilizer Company plant had not been placed on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) list of 4,000 facilities with high-risk chemicals. After 9/11, Congress passed a law that requires plants that use or store explosives or high-risk chemicals to file reports with DHS in order to increase security at those facilities. The requirement includes any plant with more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, but, according to a DHS official, the West Fertilizer Company had 1,350 times the required amount and failed to file the report. The plant simply fell through the cracks of regulatory oversight.

Along with agriculture, mining, and construction, the energy industry has one of the highest death and injury rates in the United States. The fire at Exxon’s Beaumont refinery on April 17, 2013, resulted in 12 contract workers being injured on the job. According to an April 22 National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) press conference, temporary and contract workers are more likely than full-time employees to be injured or die on the job due to insufficient training. In many cases, prior to working in dangerous jobs, temporary and contract workers receive only minimal training. Since the company that employ the temporary workers is not always the same entity that is paying them, the company is incentivized to assume less responsibility by skirting laws such as providing workers compensation and paying taxes. Many of these workers don’t know whom to turn to in the event of injury—the company where they worked or the entity that hired them—to receive workers compensation and report injuries.

The collapse of the 8-story factory building in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, which killed more than 377 people, has, once again, placed the spotlight on the poor and unsafe working conditions of those who create products for American consumers. International businesses, many based in the United States, used this factory, as well as the Tazreen Fashions factory where a devastating fire killed at least 112 workers this past November, to manufacture many of their garments. Western businesses need to wake up and realize the human cost of the race to the lowest prices.

Clothing brands and retailers like Walmart, H&M, Sears, and the Gap, which buy billions of dollars of clothes from Bangladesh, need to demand and pay for adequate safeguards at the factories that fill their orders. These companies have the power to demand better working conditions from these factories and improve the health and safety of millions of workers. International factory workers, especially those in China and Bangladesh – the two leading garment-producing nations - lack collective bargaining agreements and unions. Historically, unions have ushered in safer working conditions. In the case of the building collapse, strong unions could have prevented the loss of many lives by supporting workers who had noticed cracks in the structure but were forced back to work when factory owners threatened to dock their pay and fire them.

After the eye-opening Washington Post article on poultry processing plants, profiling a plant inspector who died after his lungs bled out, American consumers are faced with tough questions about how we produce our food. The poultry processing industry, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are poised to change the way they process and inspect our chickens and turkeys but at what costs? The proposed rule increases the use of chemical baths and sprays, including chlorine and peracetic acid (chemicals that have been labeled toxic by their manufacturing plants), transfers inspection duties from federal employees to plant employees, and increases the speed of inspection – from four USDA inspectors inspecting 140 birds per minute to one USDA inspector inspecting 175 birds per minute – 3 birds per second.

The proposed rule has been heralded by industry and some in government as a way to save the government money by staffing plants with fewer USDA inspectors, while also allowing the poultry industry to increase profits by processing more birds. While it seems to be a win-win for the government and industry, what about the workers and American consumers? So far, there has not been a comprehensive USDA study about the possible side effects created from an increased reliance on chemicals. Besides the death of Jose Navarro, the inspector whose lungs bled out, other poultry plant employees have reported injuries, due to the increased use of toxic chemicals, ranging from respiratory system irritation (including coughing up blood) to rashes on their arms and legs and an epidemic of pain from musculoskeletal disorders (including carpal tunnel) due to the increase in line speed.

In these four examples – all of which occurred in a two-week span – big business has put its interests ahead of the interests of its employees. Either through lobbying to weaken regulations and government oversight, or simply gross negligence, industry has gambled with people’s lives. Unfortunately, it is the workers who pay when this gamble fails. Government is continuously lobbied by industry to either weaken existing regulations or prevent new proposed regulations from becoming law. Industry has lobbied to skewer government agency budgets to prevent proper funding to agencies tasked with inspecting duties. For example, OSHA has about 2,200 inspectors for 130,000,000 workers and due to budgetary restrictions cannot hire and train more inspectors. It’s time to demand more from big business and government.