The Workers Must Assert Their Right to a Safe Workplace

April 21, 2010

April 28 is Workers Memorial Day. All across the U.S. and Canada, workers will organize actions to remember those who have been killed or injured on the job and to develop new initiatives to win the right to a safe work environment.

An average of 16 workers per day are killed in the U.S. as a result of traumatic injuries on the job. In 2007 alone, more than 5,600 workers lost their lives. Every year, more than 50,000 U.S. workers are killed by occupational diseases, tens of thousands more are permanently disabled and 8 to 12 million are injured or made ill every year.

The extent to which worker' rights to a safe and healthy work environment can be legally violated are reflected in the severe shortcoming of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the principal federal legislation addressing the question. As everyday experience proves, OSHA regulations and administration are far from sufficient to prevent hazardous conditions. For example, OSHA permits a level of noise in the workplace which will cause noise-induced hearing loss. Many hazards, such as thousands of chemicals in use in business and many work practices such as shift work, have no OSHA standard. There are not enough OSHA inspectors to police the employers to insure that OSHA regulations are followed. If the employer is caught violating a regulation, he usually receives no more than a slap on the wrist, and if the employer is fined, he often is able to reduce the fine in appeal or even refuse to pay it without penalty. Workers illegally fired by the employer for trying to use OSHA are almost never returned to their jobs.

The flaw in OSHA lies in the fact that it does not proceed from the recognition of the right of workers to a safe work environment. As stated in the Act itself, the reason for OSHA is that "personal injuries and illnesses arising out of work situations impose a substantial burden upon, and are a hindrance to interstate commerce in terms of lost production, wage loss, medical expenses, and disability compensation benefits." On this basis, OSHA established a federal regulatory agency empowered to set workplace standards that "adequately assures, to the extent feasible, on the basis of the best available evidence that no employee will suffer [ill health]." In other words, OSHA looks upon injuries to the workers merely as a cost factor affecting the rate of profit and on this basis workers' health and safety are ensured only "to the extent feasible"--i.e. to the extent feasible without becoming a "burden upon" or a "hindrance" to interstate commerce.

The root of the problem lies in the very motive and aims of the capitalist system. In the U.S., the capitalist class, which monopolizes the tools and implements of production, organizes economic life with the sole aim of maximizing profit. One by-product of this is that the workers are looked upon as mere implements of production and workers' health and safety are only factored in terms of the capitalists' bottom line.

But the issue is that workers are not merely implements of production. Workers are the decisive human power whose muscles and brains create all the new wealth of society. Human society arose precisely in the struggle to humanize nature, that is, to use human labor power in order to transform nature and make it hospitable for human beings. But under the capitalist system, the very process of humanizing nature de-humanizes the workers themselves.

In other words, the starting point of the struggle against the hazards of the workplace is the recognition of the right of the workers to a human environment . The workers must assert this right in opposition to the drive of capital to maximize profits regardless of the health and safety of the workers themselves. The workers must link this struggle with the goal of re-organizing the economic life of society so that its entire aim is to guarantee the well-being of the people.