Who Will We Kill Today?

The Tomb of the Unknown Worker

By Phil LaDuke

Somewhere in the world someone will die on the job today.  Maybe it will happen across the world from you and maybe it will happen next door to you, but they will die nonetheless.  Whoever it is who loses his or her life on the job, some things are likely to be true. The about to be recently deceased person is disproportionately likely to be poor, have less than average education, and or working in an unskilled position. There’s a good chance he or she will be young and in many cases he or she will be either a temporary worker (“temp”) or a contractor.

In the U.S. April 28th   is Worker Memorial Day; it’s a day not widely celebrated in the U.S. We love to remember our war dead and herald their sacrifice and we should. On Memorial Day, we remember our war dead because they laid down their lives for a greater ideal, whether we agree with the cause or reject it with all our being, whether we are hawks who are ready to go to war at the smallest provocation or doves who oppose war at every turn, we remember and honor those who answered the call. What then of those who died on the job, those young and old whose deaths served no noble purpose? What do we owe those slaughtered and maimed in our mills and mines, factories and warehouses? Unless these deaths spur us to action—meaningful, substantive changes in how we view the death of a worker (and what we do in response to these incidents) whether they be full or part-time, contractor or employee—we not only fail to honor their lives but we cheapen their horrible and untimely deaths.

I have heard one too many time the tale of a worker killed on the job. After the crocodile tears are shed and words like “senseless tragedy” and “completely preventable” roll off people’s lips in somber tones invariably someone makes will sigh and shrug in a what-can-you-do?” dismissal of the horror of dying while at work. And what’s worse is that in many of these cases, the safety professionals breathe just a little easier, when the worker is a contractor (at least it wasn’t one of ours).

While much fuss and fury are made about those who die at work, I haven’t really seen a lot of progress in reducing the risk of fatalities; it’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote about the weather “people are always talking about (it) but no one ever does anything about it”. To be sure things seem to be getting safer. Injuries are down. Well not all injuries—serious injuries and fatalities remain flat—but some injuries are down. Unless they’re not.

Let’s not deceive ourselves anymore. A good share of the reduction in injuries has nothing to do with less people getting hurt. There’s the issue of under-reporting (hell there has been a whole cottage industry within safety that either deliberately or inadvertently encourages workers to lie and say an injury was non-work-related or not.), but there is also the trend toward outsourcing the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to contractors. I’ve written several pieces on the sickening trend toward pushing the most hazardous jobs onto small, mom-and-pop contractors.

The smaller the contractor the less likely that it will be subject to OSHA regulations, have properly trained employees, or even the right tools. Whenever I see a residential roofer working hauling roofing materials up and down an unsecured ladder, working with no fall protection, and generally doing things that would make a suicidal tightrope walker cringe I think about the tens of thousands of people who are working for small firms who have little to no regard for worker safety.

Small businesses have become iconic in the United States. Want to cut business taxes? You need simply reference struggles of the small business. Want to ease (or eliminate) safety regulations? Again all you need do is point at the poor suffering small business. Wanton disregard for a worker’s basic human right to live through the workday is being justified in the name of easing the burden of small businesses. Before anyone shakes their fist at the sky and decries me a Bolshevik, I have, throughout my career owned small businesses, and while I am at it, at 5’7” I am still a small businessman. I know the pressures of trying to make payroll and trying to manage cash flow. I am not indifferent to the very real challenges of running a small business, but my sympathy stops at killing my friends and family, at allowing my children or the children of others to die simply because the mom-and-pop shop can’t afford to protect them.

The blame doesn’t lie completely on the shoulders of the small business. Many and most big companies have transitioned from having large full-time workforces in favor of smaller core workforces augmented by contractors. In the1980’s in U.S. the move to sourcing work traditionally done by employees to “independent contractors” was fueled by an increasingly tighter global market coupled with the recession and greed. Fobbing work off on to contractors was smart business: you could pay the same wage (or less) without the burden rate (typically the worker’s wage, benefits, and sundry employment costs). What’s more you didn’t have to provide benefits, and a smaller workforce (that is, fewer fulltime employees) meant that in many cases your company would be were exempt from regulations they would have faced if they had more fulltime employees). Add to that the fact that independent contractors are far less likely to form unions, and that you don’t have the hassle of wrongful discharge lawsuits if you decided to throw away the contractor like a used Kleenex, and fewer full time workers meant lower payroll taxes and you have a real tempting alternative; so much so, it seemed stupid to have employees at all.  As time went on, companies saw an even bigger benefit: a company could outsource the most dangerous jobs and lower its Workers’ Compensation and or insurance costs. Hiring contractors to do the jobs that were most likely to get your people killed or seriously injured would get you off the hook if something went sideways. Of course, as many companies have since found, things don’t always work that way, legally speaking.

In the minds of too many corporate cultures the death of a contractor is someone else’s problem.  The loss of life is terrible, but there are many terrible things in life that we just can’t concern ourselves with, like world hunger or unrest in faraway places the death of other people’s employees is a shame, but it isn’t our problem.

Like Lambs to the Slaughter

Many of us view the issue of outsourcing our fatalities as one of those far away problems (I am willing to bet more people worry about contracting Ebola than they are about losing someone close to them in a workplace fatality) but in the U.S. we have a generation of new grads who cannot find jobs. Saddled with predatory student debt that can routinely rise above six figures, these recent grads are forced to work for temp companies just to subsist. My daughter has two degrees from Loyola (Journalism and English) and has an impressive résumé as an editor and writer (she would want me to emphasize that she does NOT edit my misspellings-and-grammar-abominations infested blog posts) and yet she works as a teachers’ assistant making a pittance above minimum wage. It’s people like her and her peers that are forced into “subemployment” and who we, as a society throw to the wolves of the contractors.

We love to get high and mighty in safety and talk about making safe choices and exercising stop work authority, telling our workers that no job is worth dying for, but what choice do twenty- something workers have when the decision before them is to risk their lives (and let’s face it, most probably be okay) or use stop work authority and lose their subsistence jobs that they struggled hard and long to get.

We may not have been able to save our war dead, but we can damned sure save the workers employed in these deathtraps. We can start by asking questions; what kind of safety records do the companies we employee personally (roofers, landscapers, etc.) have? What about the companies we do work with professionally? What about the companies in our stock and 401K portfolios? If we look the other way in the name of profit we are as guilty as the foreman who tells the temp to do something life threatening the first day on the job. Unless we do all this and more we are complicit in these deaths.

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