Title: Losing Life and Limb on the Job
Author: Christopher D. Cook
Faculty and community evaluators: Fred Fletcher, Virginia Lea, Ph.D.
Student researchers: Mike Graves, Ambrosia Crumley, Dana Balicki
United States labor laws are poorly enforced and fail to meet the basic human rights of U.S. workers. Each year, about 6,000 workers die on the job from accidents and another 50,000 to 70,000 workers die annually from “occupationally acquired diseases.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is not capable of effectively overseeing U.S. workplaces.
The entire federal and state worker health and safety apparatus involves just 2,300 inspectors, who must cover America’s 102 million workers in 6.7 million workplaces. That comes to one inspector for every 44,348 workers. Theoretically, it would take OSHA 110 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.
Needed by labor and despised by business, OSHA may be workers’ best friend in government, but critics say OSHA has never been weaker or less worker-friendly. Recent studies show that United States labor laws have loopholes, are poorly enforced, and fail to meet human rights standards that our nation requires of other countries.
Titan International, an Illinois-based company, has been under fire lately at its plant and at other subsidiary locations. Despite a lengthy recent record of safety violations and injuries-including two deaths-Titan’s Des Moines plant has stymied five attempts by Iowa OSHA to inspect some twenty-three complaints lodged by workers. Titan Tire refused entry to OSHA even with an inspection warrant-a violation of law and a direct assault on the integrity of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Titan was held responsible by the Polk County District Court in Des Moines and was fined Iowa’s maximum civil-contempt penalty-just $500- which Titan is appealing.
Titan workers are being maimed across the country. Workers say it is usually the result of decrepit machines, minimal training and punishing hours. Since May 1999, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) has been challenging Titan with a slew of unfair labor practice charges. These include, but are not limited to, illegally moving jobs and equipment to avoid a union contract, refusing to bargain in good faith, discriminating against union members, and trying to permanently replace striking workers. Union officials say that fines are too low and that companies, even in worker death cases, are only getting slapped on the wrist.
In Titan’s Des Moines plant on March 20, 1997, Don Baysinger, a tire builder with 27 years of experience, was pinned between two tire-tread machines for more than twenty minutes. Baysinger died two days later of asphyxia-related symptoms. Titan paid only a $10,000 OSHA fine for failure to have emergency stops on the equipment and for being inadequately guarded.
Another death occurred at the Des Moines plant in November 1999. Nearly 2,000 gallons of highly flammable heptane poured unnoticed onto the ground and headed into the street. A passing car ignited the chemicals and set off a massive fire, killing Bulkamatic Transport Company’s driver Donald Oswald.
Titan often develops close relationships with job-starved cities. In 1997 Brownsville Texas gave Titan $6.5 million in free land, site improvements, and utility and wage subsidies. The state of Texas added $448,000 for job training for 168 workers. Titan received similar subsidies from the state of Virginia to the tune of $500,000.
In these times, it is hard to get the attention of an OSHA inspector as there are so few of them. Instead of addressing or attempting to alleviate an issue or complaints early on, inspectors seem to respond, “only when there is a death or serious injury,” union official Tim Johnson. Regardless of who is to blame, OSHA is woefully ill-equipped to monitor the workplaces of America.
UPDATE BY CHRISTOPHER D. COOK: On the surface this is a story about the untold daily horrors that still exist on today’s assembly line. But this story is about more than a “bad-apple,” runaway company abusing its workers-though that, in and of itself, is a disturbingly commonplace scandal about which we hear little in the mainstream press. The broader significance is that firms like this can-and do-regularly get away with it, thanks to a remarkably anemic worker health and safety enforcement system. Companies can turn inspectors away and delay inspections for months. Fines are minimal and routinely reduced. And while business complains about government intervention in the workplace, the reality is that there are just 2,300 federal and state inspectors charged with monitoring 6.7 million work sites across the U.S.-so firms like Titan can endanger workers with impunity.
Regrettably little has changed since this story appeared. The United Steelworkers of America continues to battle Titan, which has attempted to replace striking U.S. workers with laid-off workers from a Titan spin-off in Uruguay. On November 22, 2000, the Detroit city council declared the motor city a “Titan-free zone” to express its support for the workers.
The mainstream press has shown little interest in this story. I promoted the story to the Washington Post-with local and national hooks-to no avail.
There is a distressing lack of national groups focusing on injured workers. I encourage people interested in learning more to contact the United Steelworkers of America, Public Citizen, and the AFL-CIO, which studies worker injuries and deaths on the job, as well as government inspector per worker ratios.
Christopher D. Cook: [email protected]