The recent chemical spill that made the drinking water supply unsafe for hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia illustrates a fundamental challenge when trying to prevent workplace accidents: People don’t wish to report workplace safety violations because they are afraid of losing their jobs.
For example, the storage tank that leaked in the most recent spill in the region had not been inspected in five years. However, no one complained. Why? The president of a citizens group that formed after a 2008 fire and explosion killed workers at a Bayer CropScience plant, “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia, we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”
Companies under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Labor or OSHA have a favorite tactic when faced with possible penalties for their indifference to worker safety: They threaten to leave. This often turns local workers and citizens from advocates of improved health and safety to very quiet people who don’t wish to rock the boat for fear that their livelihoods will disappear.
People in such situations don’t want even the rules and regulations that do exist – and in West Virginia there aren’t that many – to be enforced for fear that they will lose their jobs. The existence of a job trumps environmental and workplace safety.
This economic anxiety, says Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, forces people into voting against their own best interests and for whatever industry wants. According to Reich, this keeps workers poor and willing to accept unsafe working conditions.
Fortunately, New York City and the State of New York have stronger workplace safety regulations, higher wages and stronger unions. Although these things reduce the possibility of a workplace catastrophe such as the recent chemical spill in West Virginia, there is still no guarantee that it can’t happen here. That’s why it is so important for workers who see unsafe conditions to report them – they are both protecting themselves and their fellow-workers.
Source: SFGate, “Job insecurity keeps workers quiet about health risks,” Jan. 24, 2014.