The Multinational Monitor

November 2000 - VOLUME 21 - NUMBER 11


"What is Society Willing
to Spend on Human Beings?"

The silent violence of the workplace takes a terrible toll.

In the United States alone, 6,000 workers die each year from workplace trauma, and estimates of 50,000 to 60,000 annual deaths from occupational disease almost surely understate the actual number of fatalities. Even less acknowledged are the millions of injuries that occur each year, leaving many victims with aching backs, bad knees, amputated fingers and other pains and disabilities that diminish quality of life for months, years or often a lifetime. This is an immense physical burden borne almost exclusively by working people, and almost entirely out of the consciousness of professionals, managers and executives.

Globally, the situation is far worse. The International Labor Organization estimates 1.1 million workers die on the job or from occupational disease each year. Investment in workplace safety in Third World countries, whether by domestic firms or foreign multinationals, is far below that in the rich countries. Technologies discarded and substances banned in the rich countries pose continuing threats to workers in developing countries. And hazards that are absent or confined to limited populations in the rich countries - including especially pesticide poisonings and the serious dangers of agriculture work - loom large in poor countries.

None of this has to be so.

As Zimbabwean epidemiologist Rene Loewenson says in an interview in this issue, "The issue is: What is society willing to spend on human beings?"

Big business, if it deigns to respond to this question at all, offers a cold-hearted cost-benefit analysis that seeks to identify which investments are "worth" making.

That is unacceptable. To replace the pseudo-science of cost-benefit analysis, typically subject to countless manipulations and bias, unions and workers and their allies must assert a different framework altogether. As Loewenson says, it is "a basic human rights issue: once you know that a hazard exists and is causing a fair amount of ill health, you have an obligation to reduce that hazard."

It is clear that external interventions in the workplace, and empowering workers, makes the workplace safer. In the United States, for example, for all of the many, many faults with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - including severe limits in its statutory authority, chronic underfunding, employer hostility, insufficient political commitment, a judiciary that has handcuffed its rulemaking capacity, and improperly cozy relationships with employers - the agency has had a transformative effect on the workplace. Workplace fatalities have dropped by 75 percent since OSHA was created three decades ago.

But the United States, and the world, are now moving in the wrong direction. The combined force of international industrial restructuring and enhanced business power has made the workplace an increasingly dangerous place.

New technologies have introduced new perils on job sites, such as the toxic hazards of electronics production. The imposition of new production arrangements, such as just-in-time, has sped up assembly lines (indeed many of the new production fads are really codes for old-fashioned speed up), making the risk of injury far higher. So have longer shifts and mandatory overtime increased worker vulnerability to workplace hazards. And the globalization of production has enabled multinational corporations to cut occupational safety and health investments, as they shift production either directly or through contractors to Third World countries with weaker workplace regulations and enforcement.

Meanwhile, increasing business power (not unrelated to industrial restructuring) has undermined effective enforcement of occupational safety and health laws.

In the United States, a hostile Republican Congress and an administration that has made workplace safety a low priority have colluded to produce a horrible record. The Clinton administration has failed to propose and promulgate a single new hazardous chemical standard. The Clinton OSHA has conducted fewer inspections per year than any previous administration, including Reagan's, according to a Public Citizen analysis. OSHA's budget should be 20 times higher, in the eyes of its current administrator. And in the workplace, lower unionization rates and diminished union power have undermined workers' ability to stand up on the shop floor to protect their interests.

Again, the situation is even worse in developing countries. Structural adjustment programs have cut state spending and undermined poor countries' ability to maintain effective occupational safety and health agencies. The obsession with attracting foreign investment has left many governments fearful of strict enforcement of workplace regulations. Workers' profound fear of losing their job leaves too many frightened to demand health and safety protections; and low unionization rates leave most workers with little ability to confront employers collectively.

The issue of workplace safety poses the starkest questions about the global economy. Will the changes in work organization, shifts in production, introduction of new technologies and purported gains in efficiency be used for the single-minded corporate pursuit of profit, while frequently undermining and rarely improving worker safety? Or will governments and workers demand that the human right to security of the person take precedence, and that work reorganization be undertaken with the express purpose of protecting workers' physical well-being?