Monday, April 12, 2010

[olympiaworkers] For Worker Safety

For Worker Safety
The undeniable reality under the capitalist system is that the lives of
workers only have value based upon the wealth they can produce for the
employers. In general society if a person causes the death of someone by
means of willful negligence they are charged with murder. But in industry if
an employer causes the death of workers by means of willful negligence, even
after they have been fined by inspectors for safety violations, the most
they are faced with is another fine. In most cases the fines are so low that
they are looked upon as just another business expense. Though the government
has laws that cover safety, often these laws are violated if they in any way
interfere with profit. There is no doubt about it, as the IWW puts it: "The
working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

Many times I have had to work in tanks knowing full well that the company
was violating state and federal law as to confine spaces. By law there must
be a holewatch when working in tanks. Few times over my many years in
shipyards have I seen that law followed. Heck they don't even put up a
notice that there are workers in a tank. Some tanks are deep and others are
very long and the worry is always that someone will put the tank lid on
while you are in there and you get trapped. I know at one shipyard they
killed two workers by closing the lid and filling the tank full of water. It
did happen to me once while working in an aft tank and the tank was being
closed for the painters. I just happened to be very near the hole and I
guess you could hear my response a mile away. I hit that damn lid with my
two pound hammer with everything I had.

Since I have no faith in either the employers or the laws, I try to take
direct steps to protect myself. In the case of working very far into tanks I
will take a padlock and lock it into one of the holes on the lid so that the
lid cannot be placed upon the hole.

Throughout our lives in this society, we are told about such things as
liberty, freedom and justice. We are taught that we are responsible for our
actions. If we harm or kill others do to direct intent or clear negligence
we will be held accountable for our actions. Fact is this only applies to
the common people of this land. It does not apply to the owners of industry.
If it did then Don Blankenship, CEO of the Massey Energy Company, owner of
the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners were killed, aong with his
managers, would be sitting in a jail cell, without bail, charged with 29
counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

The reality of this society, as it now exists, is that we have been lied to.
As every worker knows the social responsibilities that we must live with are
not the same responsibilities that the employing class have when it comes to
their relationship with their employees. If any worker caused the death
directly or by clear negligence of some boss, we would be arrested. But the
employers can commit mass murder of workers by clear negligence and all that
our political system does is cry crocodile tears of sympathy for the dead
and their families.

The evidence against the murderer Don Blankenship is overwheming. In the two
months before the murder of the miners the mine was evacuated three times
because of dangerously high methane levels.

The mine had been sited many times for ventilation problems and it received
two citations on the day of the murders. Last year the mine was issued over
500 citations. The company was even fined $382,000 in the last year. But
clearly $382,000 is but pocket change to Massey Energy Company which has 2.2
billion tons of coal reserves in three Appalachia states and ranks among the
U.S.'s five top coal producers and is one of the most profitable coal
companies. Since 1995 this mine has had more than 3,000 violations. And what
was murderer Don Blankenship's response to all these violation? He stated,
"Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process." Rather
than being arrested for murder, when murderer Dan Blankenship showed up at
the mine he was "escorted by at least a dozen state and other police
officers" who were there to protect him.

The government states that over 104,000 miners have died in coal mines. One
inspector stated that, "many, if not a majority of those "accidents" should
not be considered mishaps, but acts of negligent homicide."

Just days before the murder of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine out
here in Washington State 5 workers were killed and two are still in critical
condition from a fiery explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes. In
2008 a several month investigation turned up 17 serious safety violations
(defined as those that can cause death or serious injury) in which 150
instances of deficiencies that included the company did not "ensure safe
work practices." Last year the Tensoro Anacortes refinery was fined $87,500
but later the fine was reduced to $12,250. Less than one hour of profit made
by a finery that refines up to 130,000 barrels of crude oil daily.

This seems to be the point where the question should be asked, if this has
been going on for so long why is it that our laws do not prevent such
murder? First because there is little real enforcement and when fines are
assessed they are so low that they are looked upon as just another cost in
the accumulation of profit.

I once worked for Bunker Hill Mining Company as a zincstripper and in 1973 a
fire badly damaged the baghouse, where smelter emissions were filtered
through cloth bags before being released into the air. Rather than close
down the smelter and repair the damage, the employers ran the smelter
bypassing the baghouse and the built-up lead rained downed upon the
surrounding towns. The families, and most tragically the children, were
poisoned with lead.

The family of miner Bill Yoss, who had worked underground for 25 years at
Bunker Hill, was tested by doctors from the Center for Disease Control. His
daughter, Arlene, was found to have more than four times the threshold then
considered dangerous. The lead had settled in her bones and her legs grew
twisted. Only hot soaking baths would ease her continuous pain. Her mother
was told, after the tests on Arlene and her two other children, that she had
"three walking dead babies." In 1975 Bill Yoss went to see an attorney in
Spokane to see what could be done. While he was away he was fired. The Yoss
family filed suit against Bunker Hill. The information gathered for the suit
told a story of corporate crime almost beyond comparison. Bunker Hill
settled with the Yoss family and the families of 35 other children in 1981.
All records and information gathered was sealed by the court, and it was not
until 1990 that the records and the story that the suit revealed of the
poisoning of the people of the Silver Valley became known.

Within the unsealed documents was found a two-page memo in which the vice
president of Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp. (the company that owned
Bunker Hill at that time) calculated an estimation on how much Gulf would
have to pay if it continued to expose children to lead emissions rather than
shut down the smelter and repair the baghouse. His estimate came to $6 to $7
million for poisoning 500 children. He also examined the possibility of
discrediting the doctors who warned of the dangers of lead poisoning. At the
time, prices for lead ore were high, so Gulf decided that the profits were
far greater than the "costs" of poisoning children and over than 56% of the
workers at Bunker Hill. That year Gulf raked in $25.9 million from lead ore.

The reality is that so-called health and safety laws are only a smokescreen
to cover-up the killing. injuring and sickening of workers by the employers.
I have worked in the hard rock mining industry, in shipyards (14 shipyards
all together) for many years, as a port and long haul trucker, and as an
environmental technician and have been a wage worker for over 40 years. I
have yet to see a workplace where the employers gave a damn about safety or
even about following health and safety laws.

In the shipyards the employers seem to always know in advance when
inspectors are going to show up. I remember once when all production work
was shutdown for a day so that the shipyard could be cleaned up the day
before an inspection. I have been told many times not to speak to the
inspectors unless they speak to me first, and then only answer their direct

Often the laws that we think protect us they find ways to get around them.
Once I had to remove some valves out of a barge that hauled caustic soda,
real nasty stuff. The foreman told me to just use rubber gloves and that it
was not a real problem. I noticed when I got down into the tank, where the
valves were, that there was a decontamination station and warning signs. I
looked at the piping system and saw that all the valves were closed and that
two pumps had been removed. That told me that the system had been closed
down, since all the valves would not normally be closed and that it was
possible that caustic soda was still in the pipes and since the valves to
the tanks were closed the piping system could still be under pressure. I
also heard stories about serious burns to workers in the past at this
shipyard due to caustic soda. I then found the man responsible for safety
and asked him if I could see the MSDS for caustic soda. By federal law every
worker has a right to read the MSDS on any hazardous substance they work
with or are around. The safety man started to look for the MSDS when my
foreman came up yelling about why I was not taking the valves out and I told
him what I saw and that I was going to read the MSDS. A supervisor came up
and I guess he realized that the foreman was directly violating federal law
and he shut the job down. After that happened there was a lay-off of
pipefitters that included me. When I went back to work at that shipyard,
after that job was done, I found out that the workers were never told about
the hazards and that there was still caustic soda in the lines.

Even when you have the union rep. there with a safety inspector that can
sometimes be nothing more than creating an illusion of safety. I once was
working on boilers in a fireroom on a ship. The stream pipes and the boilers
were wrapped in asbestos lagging. Every morning the inspector would test the
air for asbestos. We were working a 12 hour shift with no night crew because
of the nature of the job. That meant that the inspectors were testing the
air after 12 hours of no work and the blowers off. On some days the union BA
would be there watching the inspector and I asked him why? He said to make
sure that the inspection was being done. I then asked him why was the air
not tested again a few hours after working had begun and the blowers were
on? He looked pissed off at me and sneered, "just be happy that you have
this work".

Many workers are killed, injured or sicken every year because of the
employer's greed. This is the nature of capitalism, this cannot be reformed
without changing the fundamental purpose of capitalism, which is to produce
great wealth for the few at the expense of the many. Almost from the very
beginning of capitalism there have been those that sought to reform
capitalism through governmental action. But still the worker's dead pile up.

Maybe if the employers were held to the same standard as the rest of society
is and they are thrown in jail under murder charges when they cause the
death of workers due to clear willful negligence, things would be different.
But that will never happen because we workers are only a means to profit for
the few in this society.

The only answer to this grave situation is for us working people to realize
that we, as workers, are the only ones who are going to look after our real
interests. We must go beyond the traditional union movement and create a
worker's survival movement, for it is our right to live that we need to be
fighting for. We must organize and stand together all the way to a Social
General Strike for Safety. If not that then what? When will we decide that
enough workers have died and that the political/economic system will not and
can not do anything about it and only by our actions, as working people,
will there ever be safe work for all.
Arthur J. Miller

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