Workers Memorial Day thoughts

How many times have you heard business lobbyists and spokesmen say: “Regulations are killing jobs”? Or how about, “Excessive regulations are driving manufacturers overseas”?

Well think about what’s been happening in Bangladesh, where so many US clothing retailers and garment makers, from Wal-Mart to L.L.Bean, have gone to escape livable wages and regulation. That lack of regulations is killing workers, not in ones and twos, as happens here in the United States several times every day, but hundreds at a time. Factory fires as devastating as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of a century ago have now been followed by a building collapse that has so far claimed 300 lives, the workers crushed, bleeding to death or suffocating.

Several stories I’ve read report that only one business (a bank) heeded the warnings of police that the eight-story factory building was so unsafe that it had to be evacuated. The other businesses shrugged off the warnings and ordered more than 2,000 people to work in mortal danger.

Are businesses more responsible here than in Bangladesh or China, where mining disasters in recent years have killed hundreds of workers at a time? If so, it’s in part because U.S. regulation and tort litigation have made them so. Even with this regulation, small businessmen still send workers into unguarded, narrow and deep dirt trenches to lay pipe. And workers are killed in trench collapses every year, month after month, even though every contractor in America knows it’s unsafe and illegal. Businesses still send young men and boys to die in grain silos, even though they know it’s unsafe and illegal to “walk the grain” to loosen it when it gets caught up. The workers die by suffocation, they get ground up by augers, and they suffer as they die. But it still happens year after year, because the people in charge cut corners and just don’t care enough to make sure that the people working for them are safe.

If you think we can rely on businesses to self-regulate, think again. West Fertilizer, the small business that blew up and killed fourteen people in Texas last week, declared itself safe and estimated the chance of a catastrophic explosion at zero. They needed someone with authority and the power to change behavior to look over their shoulder, to look out for the workers and first responders who were most at risk, and to look out for the school children whose schools were within the blast radius. But no agency had or exercised that authority.

As a society, we need to pay more attention to the safety and health of our workers. Nearly 5,000 workers were killed on the job in the United States in 2011, and an estimated 50,000 or more died from illness or disease they contracted from on-the-job hazards such as breathing chlorine fumes or periacetic acid and exposure to silica dust, asbestos, beryllium and hundreds of other hazardous substances. The cost of these illnesses and deaths is about $250 billion—more than the cost of all cancers. Inadequate regulation kills workers, and it costs our economy plenty.

Workers Memorial Day is Sunday, April 28, and I hope you’ll take a moment to think about the tragedies in Bangladesh and Texas. Take a moment to think about what kind of a country you want and which problem you think is more serious, that regulations kill jobs or that unregulated work kills workers.