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Sandy Says: The Way We Were

Jan. 9, 2015
Looking at old photographs showing the way we worked in the early 1900s reminded me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Don't get me wrong; I know that the workplace is safer today than ever before, thanks to new technology, a better understanding of health and physical hazards, the elimination of hazardous substances from the workplace, regulations, etc. But as a news item on p. 8 of this month's issue reminds us, 3 million private sector workers suffered workplace injuries or illnesses in 2013.

The philosopher George Santayana noted, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

I was thinking of his quote as I looked through some of the photo galleries we've published in the past couple of years. Several of them contain photographs of tragedies (the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Hawk's Next Tunnel tragedy) or the work and the workers of days gone by (Dangerous Jobs: The Way We Worked and the photographs of Lewis Hine). I have a photograph by Hine framed on my wall. It shows a young child, maybe 8 or 9, working in a mill at the turn of the last century. Below it, I have a photograph taken less than 10 years ago of a 6-year-old holding up a pair of deadly-looking trimmers in a field in California where she and her 8-year-old sister were harvesting herbs.

I'll be honest with you: In my opinion, there is no reason, in the year 2015, for miners to die in mine collapses and explosions or for children or teenagers to die in farm accidents. No one should suffer from silicosis – which we've known about since the pyramids were built – or asbestosis. There should be no workplace amputations, and no deaths from falls from heights. We have the technology to prevent ALL of these workplace injuries and illnesses, yet they continue to occur.

Why is that? Why are there still injuries and illnesses ? Is it because some companies have become complacent with their safety programs, as suggested by Terry Mathis in his column on p. 14? 

Is it because personal protective equipment (PPE) isn't comfortable? Considering the millions of dollars in research spent on making PPE lighter, softer, better fitting, easier to use and more attractive, I also find that hard to believe.

Are some employers psychopaths who don't value human life over production? Or is it human nature at times to ignore consequences because it's convenient to do so, even if the consequence of that behavior is death? 

A group of students from Oberlin College petitioned the college president to give any students who were failing a course a passing "C" grade if they missed class because they were protesting the shooting of a boy named Tamir Rice by the Cleveland Police Department. The president declined to do so, which shocked some of the students. They felt like they were entitled to a grade they did not earn because they were advocating for justice. I support their right to advocate and protest, and I support the right of the school administration to maintain the integrity of the grading system.

The hard lesson we all have learned from cases like that of Tamir Rice is that actions have consequences: for Tamir, for the police officers involved, for city officials and for protestors. The same is true of workplace situations where injury or death is a possibility.

When we do something a dozen times and don't get hurt, it's easy to forget that we could get hurt the 13th time. When we're young and we feel indestructible, it's easy to forget that young people die all the time of disease, accidents and violence. When we're well-trained and experienced, it's easy to become complacent and stop thinking about the task at hand.

I hate the term "human error" or "worker error." It implies that the employee did something to cause himself or herself (or others) harm. It lets employers off the hook for not engaging that employee in a continued appreciation for his or her own (healthy) life and for not providing what amounts to a "fool-proof" work environment, where hazards have been removed through engineering or administrative controls.

Three million private-sector workers were injured or made ill by work in 2013. In my book, that's 3 million too many.

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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