Readers of the March 5 New York Times were greeted by the grotesque headline,
"His Hands Reattached, a Worker is Overjoyed." The piece included a
photo of the recovering machinist, 49-year-old Arsenio Matias, a Dominican immigrant
and father of six. While operating a vacuum press that produces plastic components
for window displays, both his hands had been caught up and neatly severed at the
wrist. Only the quick thinking of his co-workers, who used their belts to stop
the flow of blood from his arms and ran to buy ice to keep his hands alive until
medics could arrive, allowed Matias to survive long enough to have his hands surgically
reattached. Doctors do not expect him to regain normal mobility.
This account of traumatic injury at the workplace is a fairly ordinary situation--the
only thing exceptional about it is that Matias' hands were saved. Had this not
been the case, or if he had lost the use of his hands over time to repetitive
stress, we would know nothing about him. Disabling workplace injuries are now
so common in the United States that the thousands of workers who lose their
fingers, hands, hearing, sight, mobility--and often their lives--every year
remain invisible to most of us. We don't see the human cost of unsafe machines,
dangerous production quotas, inadequate safety equipment and exposure to toxic
chemicals unless a case like that of Matias catches a reporter's attention.
What's worse, these conditions are unnecessary. This is one of the conclusions
of an important study released by Human Rights Watch. "Blood, Sweat, and
Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants" documents the outrageous
incidence of needless disability and death suffered mostly by immigrant workers
in this industry, as well as the extent to which industry and Bush administration
antipathy to the right to organize has eroded enforcement of basic health and
safety standards that unions fought to establish throughout the 20th century.
"Blood, Sweat, and Fear" documents in excruciating detail the rates
of traumatic and longer term injury. Workers in the industry now face a one
in five chance of severe disability or death on the job--jobs that often lack
benefits and decent pay. Just as crucially, the report traces the industry's
concerted and largely successful efforts over the last two decades to disable
the once-muscular unions that had previously protected meatpacking and poultry
workers from such ferocious injury rates. Indeed, while "injury rates had
been in line with other manufacturing sectors with trade union representation
... since the breakdown of national bargaining agreements, [meat packing] has
become the most dangerous factory job in America." Referring to industry
giant Tyson Foods as the "Wal-Mart" of the industry, the report traces
a de-skilling of meat and poultry production that has "reduced every stage
in the process to repetitive cutting," forcing workers to repeat the same
motion 30,000 times a day, often with no time to sharpen dull knives or clear
dangerous detritus from the work area.
As is the case in other industries, meatpacking and poultry workers have suffered
the impact of the Bush administration's collusion with industry giants like
Tyson, a fact that has permitted "government agencies themselves [to] give
production priority over worker safety."
One of the first actions taken by the Bush administration was the repeal of
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Ergonomics Standard
adopted by the Clinton administration. This was just the first step in what
became a pattern for the administration, which has actively turned its back
on worker health and safety in order to placate its corporate allies. For example,
as the AFL-CIO pointed out last February, the White House has proposed freezing
the budget for OSHA standard enforcement programs, even though OSHA is already
so inadequately funded that its staff will only be able to inspect any particular
plant an average of once a century.
For FY 2006, the Bush budget proposes to eliminate all funding for union-run
worker health and safety training programs. In addition, the Bush administration
has shut down the development of new workplace rules on exposure to cancer-causing
substances, reactive chemicals and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.
It has refused to issue a rule requiring employers to pay for the sort of personal
protective equipment that could prevent thousands of injuries to the mostly
immigrant, mostly low-wage workforce in industries like meat processing.
In another obvious favor to corporations, the administration repealed the OSHA
rule requiring musculoskeletal disorders to be reported on workplace injury
rate logs, and made enforcement of existing ergonomic standards "voluntary"
rather than mandatory.
The degree of administration contempt for worker safety was perhaps most evident
when, in January 2002, President Bush appointed as acting solicitor of labor
one Eugene Scalia, the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a member
of the arch-conservative Federalist Society. The solicitor of labor is the federal
attorney responsible for implementing and enforcing workplace safety, wage and
hour, pension security, and other critically important protections. But Scalia
was apparently nominated by Bush precisely because of what AFL-CIO President
John Sweeney has termed his "extreme and relentless opposition to ergonomics
protections and other worker protection initiatives."
Scalia's opposition was evident in a paper published by the Cato Institute
in June of 2000, in which he belittled carpal tunnel syndrome and other RSI
injuries as "subjective" and dismissed ergonomics as a "questionable
science." Only after a concerted effort by labor unions and Senate Democrats
was Scalia forced from the Department of Labor in 2003. His resignation was
lamented by, among others, the National Right to Work Foundation and Bush's
secretary of labor, Elaine Chao.
Given that we're all going to suffer another four years of this administration's
relentless anti-worker agenda, we would do well to recognize that the injuries
faced by those who process our hamburgers and chicken are ever closer to becoming
"injuries to all."