Friday, June 8, 2012

Environmental Justice in the Workplace

When people go to work, they put their lives in the hands of their employers. Those employers have a duty of care to their employees to protect them from harm. However, many people are exposed to harmful substances during the course of their work. Sometimes, they contract life-limiting diseases as a result. There is a tendency among some to think exposure to toxic substances only happens in the third world and that in America, we had consigned dangerous working conditions to history with our labor laws. They are wrong. An estimated 350,000 workers contract an industrial disease each year in the United States, caused directly by their working environment. 50,000-70,000 die of them.

Disease and Damage

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers in the US. They exist to enforce legislation on workplace health and safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 makes employers responsible for their workers’ health and safety at work, but that does not mean that they always do, despite the OHSA’s best efforts. Some workers, such as farm workers, are not covered by the OSHA but should be covered by state agencies. While legal protection for workers does exist, there are many examples of workers suffering because their employers failed to adequately protect them. Often, these workers come from the most vulnerable groups in society, such as migrant workers. People on low incomes often have no option other than to take jobs in the most dangerous industries. African American and Hispanic workers are over-represented in low-wage, hazardous jobs, and so these communities are more likely than others to be impacted by poor working conditions.

Industrial, construction and agricultural jobs tend to be the most dangerous. Construction and maintenance workers can be exposed to chemicals such as asbestos and other chemical dusts in the fabric of buildings. Manufacturing workers can be exposed to all kinds of liquid and other chemicals in the course of the manufacturing process. Miners often breathe in large quantities of harmful coal dust and other residue. Farm workers are exposed to harmful pesticides and even sometimes to dangerous diseases spread by animals, such as anthrax. Even without exposure to chemicals, workers health can be damaged by long hours and dangerous machinery.Nearly all of the diseases caused by these (and other) hazards can be prevented by good working practices, such as providing proper safety equipment to those handling chemicals, carrying out asbestos surveys and giving all workers safety training.

Workers Fight Back

We know that there are numerous violations of safety legislation every day, as many employers believe they can get away with lax safety standards. However, some workers are not willing to just accept dangerous working conditions and the risks that go with them. Many of them will have seen what those conditions have done to former colleagues.

In California, California Rural Legal Assistance helps farmworkers fight for justice in their working conditions. The California Labor Code exempts farm workers from its forty-hour maximum working week. Instead, they can work for up to sixty hours, despite often facing harsh conditions and physical fatigue. Several farmworkers die just from heat exhaustion each year, and many others’ health is damaged by exposure to chemicals.

The Environmental Justice for Cleaning Workers Campaign fights on behalf of cleaning workers exposed to harmful chemicals in the course of their work. They recognize that cleaning workers are more likely than others to suffer from a range of diseases, including certain cancers, asthma and neurological diseases. Children of cleaning workers are more likely to be born disabled, and women are more likely to miscarry than others. They have had some success in persuading employers to limit the use of harmful chemicals.
These are two local organizations working for change. There should be more.

Can We Do More?

We have legislation in place designed to protect workers from harm, and yet it often fails to do so. No-one should die trying to make a living. Those who suffer most are often those least able to fight back, such as migrant farm workers. National organizations need to help support local groups in their fight against poor working conditions. Individual workers cannot fight back without risking their jobs, and few if any vulnerable workers are unionized. United and with help on their side, they could do so much more.

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