As events in Boston have spiraled toward martial law throughout the week after bombings at the Marathon on Monday, another deadly explosion rocked a town in Texas. A chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Company, with the strength of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, has killed at least 14 people, but the number may more than double, as the search of the blast zone continues and many people remain unaccounted for.
In the context of the week’s events, Reuters tried to link the explosion with a possible terrorist attack, writing on Thursday, “While authorities stressed the Texas explosion could be an accident, it happened within days of the deadly Boston marathon bombings and the discovery of poisonous packages sent to President Barack Obama and a Republican senator – both incidents that have revived memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks.”
But a deadly industrial accident is far more likely, and quickly information emerged about a long record of negligence by plant management, safety violations, and OSHA non-compliance. Mike Elk, a reporter for In These Times, explained why the plant may not have been inspected by OHSA since 1985—more than 25 years—“that’s not uncommon. This is a non-union facility. The way OSHA typically works, and as well as EPA, is that they get a call from a worker, and then inspectors show up, and they inspect the plant, and they find problems. When you have a non-union workforce, like you have in this plant, that’s a lot less likely, since many folks are scared of losing their jobs.” A familiar narrative is emerging: workers’ lives (and, in this case, the lives of first responders and community members) sacrificed for the sake of profit. And it also reveals a second side to the story: the importance of unions in protecting workers’ lives.
How common are industrial accidents and why do they happen?
Industrial accidents of varying magnitude occur every day. In the last available numbers from 2010, 4,690 workers—that’s 13 workers every day—died on the job in the United States. The AFL-CIO estimates another 50,000 died from occupational diseases. And these numbers don’t even begin to address workplace injuries, which often leave workers permanently disabled.
Some of the more severe accidents enter the public view. The same day as the West Fertilizer explosion, which has forced evacuation of the entire town, a fire at an oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas injured five workers. In 2010, there were four major industrial accidents: the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 miners—the biggest mining accident since the Mannington explosion that killed 78 miners 40 years before; the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers (not to mention causing one of the largest environmental catastrophes in history); a Connecticut power plant explosion killed five; and a refinery explosion in Washington state killed 7 workers. In 2008, an explosion at a Georgia sugar refinery killed thirteen.
Patterns of industrial accidents also reflect other inequalities in our society. Latino workers remain at increased risks for on-the-job death, with a fatal accident rate of 3.9 per 100,000 (compared to 3.6 per 100,000 for the American workforce as a whole), and immigrant Latino workers make up more than 62% of Latino worker deaths. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Latino worker deaths is the trend: since 1992, fatalities among Latino workers have increased 33%, while overall workplace death has declined by almost 25%.
Industrial accidents aren’t a necessary part of work, although they have come to appear natural. Largely, workplace accidents can be prevented. The most common cause of death in the workplace is traffic accidents—as drivers are pressed to make mileage requirements, or make a delivery deadline, disregard traffic laws or fall asleep at the wheel. Accidents also occur when the expected speed of work is increased, leaving less time for safety checks, or when companies refuse to replace or maintain equipment, which malfunctions and then causes an accident. Some industries, like mining and chemical production place workers into volatile situations with unstable gases and materials.
Take, for example, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, known as black lung, an debilitating respiratory disease that makes it difficult for the lungs to process oxygen. In the 1970s, as American coal operators refused to admit that black lung was in any way related to working in the mines and affected miners continued to die as even more developed the condition, Appalachian doctors noted that in Australia, where workers had more protections, the problem of black lung had almost been completely eliminated through the introduction of proper safety masks for underground work.
And the explosion at Massey energy needn’t have happened either. In the year before the blast alone, Massey was fined $382,000 for “repeated unrepentant violations” of health and safety requirements, including improper ventilation levels, lacking equipment plans, and poor implementation of safety procedure. In the month before the explosion, the company received 57 safety citations, including 2 the day before. From 2005-2010, the mine had committed a staggering 1,342 safety violations.
These tales echo in West, Texas. We now know that West Fertilizer violated safety regulations when it did not disclose its storage of “1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” In addition, the company had received citations for safety violations after not receiving permits for equipment updates and inspections. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had repeatedly violated the company for deficiencies in its risk-management program. The regulatory agency for pipelines and hazmat transport had recently fined the company $10,000 “for failings that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without adequate security,” but the company had the fine reduced to $5,250 by agreeing to take corrective action.
But why don’t the companies avoid fines? Why don’t they preemptively take action to ensure worker safety?
First, for multi-million and multi-billion dollar corporations, these fines are a pittance. A slap on the wrist. Often times, it is cheaper to pay the fine, even to pay fines repeatedly, than it is to fix the problem. Even in cases of worker fatality, fines are too low to deter violation. On average, in 2010, companies paid only a $7,900 fine in cases of on-the-job fatalities.
Companies would rather risk worker death than slow production and see a fall in profits. As a miner in Harlan County, USA recalls, the boss “can hire another man. [You] got to buy a mule.” And, according to US law, in a precedent dating back the 1842 case of Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corp., an employer cannot be held responsible for workplace accidents, death, or injury unless willful neglect on the part of the employer can be “proven.” As the AFL-CIO “Death on the Job” report notes:
Criminal penalties under the OSHA law are weak. They are limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker death and are misdemeanors. Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail. During this time there were more than 370,000 worker deaths. By comparison, in [Fiscal Year] 2011 there were 371 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 249 defendants charged, resulting in 89.5 years of jail time and $35 million in penalties—more cases, fines, and jail time in one year than during OSHA’s entire history.
The result? Employers pursue profits—which they are required to do; it’s the business of capitalism to be profitable—at whatever cost necessary. If workers suffer declines in living standards, that’s the market. If a worker loses an arm during an assembly line speed-up, she was careless. If a worker dies in the tobacco fields, they can rarely be held accountable in any way that meaningfully provides impetus for improved treatment. The pattern emerges clearly across time, geography (think about textile fires in Bangladesh, for example), and industry.
Of course, this pattern has been interrupted from time to time. Working conditions used to be much, much worse. (I’m sure you believe me, but if you don’t, check out Frederick Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.) Workers and their collective power, the union, have struggled and won many gains that not only save worker’s lives, but make life as a working-class person more tolerable. Eight hour work days (though not for long, if GOP legislators have their way—let’s not let them), weekends, sick days (for you lucky bastards who still have them), safety equipment and procedures, federal oversight agencies (which, calculating by the decrease in worker death rates since the creation of OSHA in 1970, have saved the lives of more than 451,000 workers).
But as neoliberalism has ravaged working class gains and busted union after union, safety measures were among the targets, causing serious erosion in protections and enforcement as regulation of industry was scaled back in the name of development and oversight agencies like OSHA saw their budgets—already meager—reduced. With only 2,178 inspectors for more than 8 million workplaces, OSHA can inspect workplaces once every 131 years.
Working under these conditions is a kind of terrorism: the terrorism of capital
I don’t mean this flippantly. Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. That’s not to say capitalists meet each Thursday to plan attacks on the workers: they don’t need to do that. The logic of the system, encapsulated in the constant pursuit of expansion and profit, does that quite well, and the capitalists reap the benefits for themselves. But when you are forced to work under the constant threat of death each day, with days of tense quiet punctuated with explosions, cave ins, melt downs, and mechanical failures that kill thousands of workers each year in the US alone, and you are subjected to this terror so that one class—a small minority of the world’s population—can maintain economic, political, and social power, that’s terrorism.
Mining folk music shows how deeply this terror has pervaded our culture. “Oh I dreamed that the mines was all raging with fire, the miners all fought for their lives.” – “There’s a man in a big house way up on a hill, far far from the shack where the poor miner dwells, he’s got plenty of money, lord everything’s fine. He has forgotten the Mannington Mine…where 78 good men so uselessly died.” – “Shut up in the mines of the coal creek, we know that we must die” – “That there’s a blue mark left by the coal, little more and I’d have been dead.”
And then, if we step back to see the ecological crisis we find ourselves in, we might wonder why we still send workers thousands of feet underground, in small potentially deadly tunnels to retrieve coal? Or why do we engage in a dangerous and destructive drilling process to extract oil? Most often, media and investigative sources have then blamed workers for the accident, saying that proper safety procedures weren’t followed, workers were careless, etc. Little is ever said of the pressure placed on workers by management to work faster, to cut corners to cut costs.
Those are not empty threats. As the size of the industrial workforce has been diminished since the 1970s, the threat of layoffs and the consequent long-term unemployment are too real, and accompanied by the step-by-step dismantling of the already too small welfare system for working and poor people. The impetus to work for wages under capitalism is driven by our basic needs. If you are desperate, you will take any work you can find, even if it’s deadly, like a fertilizer factory (especially a non-union one), even if it’s emotionally degrading, like working in customer service. You will take any job because the alternative is to starve.
The power of workers
But because of our central role in society, workers have the power to change this state of affairs with our collective power. Through our unions, through social movements, we can win vital reforms that will save the lives of workers now. That will demand accountability from companies like West Fertilizer, Massey Energy, and BP. That will fight the racism that pervades our society. But because of our central role in production, workers can also fight for an entirely different kind of society—a socialist society based on human need instead of profit. “Accidents” like the West Fertilizer explosion are particularly egregious offenses of a system that is economically disastrous for workers, devastating for the ecosystem, murderously expansive and morally defunct. Together, we can build and fight for that alternative, for a different future, and a different world.