Workers Memorial Day was April 28, a day to reflect on workers around the world who have contributed their lives trying to make a living for themselves and their families. In the United States, more than 4,500 are killed in American work places each year, in addition to others in the vicinity who often are victims, as well.
West Virginia continues to have its share of disasters. While there are the major incidents such as Mannington, Sago, and Massey/Upper Big Branch, there are also the often-overlooked worker deaths that occur one by one each day.
The recent explosion of a fertilizer plant in West Texas that killed 14 people is an example. The tragedy, a somewhat overlooked event that occurred at the same time of the Boston Marathon bombing, involved a firm that hadn't had a safety inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. (The fine was $30.)
OSHA, which has the responsibility to make sure that 7 million work places are safe for employees, was created in 1970, a year after the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Both have a history of being understaffed and being plagued with checkered enforcement. As typical in such cases, the owners will not likely be charged with economic murder in the killing of people for profit even though the "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision has ruled that companies are equivalent to people.
To prevent possible terrorism after 9/11, Congress required facilities that store more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, used also to make bombs, to file reports with Homeland Security. West Fertilizer had not complied, even though it had 1,350 times that amount. It did not have to worry much since Texas Gov. Rick Perry promotes Texas as a model of economic freedom and having "a business climate second to none."
Anywhere else, one would look at the Union Carbide incident in Bhopal or the use of the same fertilizer by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City and conclude that having homes, an apartment complex, nursing home, and a school next door to a facility with 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate is criminal neglect.
While there are current and justified concerns about the impact of sequestration on airline safety and food inspections, there is little awareness that OSHA inspects work places infrequently. In Texas, the state checks even less frequently. Cutbacks will make the situation worse.
The problem is not only in the United States. In Bangladesh, where firms have rushed to pay $16 a week after recent pay hikes in China, more than a thousand garment workers have been killed in the past decade making clothing for box stores such as Wal-Mart and name brand fashions such as Gap and Nike. According to Scott Nova, who directs the Worker Rights Consortium and was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, retailers respond to conditions in Bangladesh with "vague promises and public relations dodges." In November, a fire killed 111 workers and 64 were killed in 2005 when a building collapsed. On April 24, more than 1,100 were killed in another collapsed building.
The scenes replicate U.S. disasters from over 100 years ago, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911. The fire caused the death of 146 garment workers, who died from fire, smoke, and jumping 10 floors to the street below because of locked exits. In essence, the only lesson learned was by business, which moved domestic profit centers away from increased regulation to the Pacific Basin to continue criminal economic behavior.
Clothing outfitters, such as Faded Glory, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, thrive on the human cost of using cheap labor to market expensive clothing while hiding profits in foreign tax havens.
The overall total number of worker deaths is astronomical. There are few convictions and no sentences for economic terrorism even though it is the height of criminality. Loved ones can only bow to the words of Mother Jones to "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living" as they seek the elusive promise of a better tomorrow.
David is a retired professor from WVU-Tech and a Gazette contributing columnist.