The Triangle Fire in Manhattan. The collapse of the Molasses Tank in Boston. The textile factories in Bangladesh. The fertilizer plant in Texas. Mine cave-ins everywhere. All horrific accidents. All leaving people dead, maimed and suffering. All putting at risk scores of first responders. All shouting out from newspapers, radio, television for “action.”
“Action” generally turns to the search-for-a-villain. The routine is familiar: we identify the evil-doers, point a rigid finger of blame at one person, or one malicious corporation, take anguish to the courts. Indeed, bystanders are often relieved when an official investigation zeroes in on a criminal culprit: we reassure ourselves when we can blame an evil miscreant – or, if we blame a faceless corporation, we assign faces to the accident, signaling out the inept or stupid or blasé workers whose ineptitude, stupidity, or nonchalance spurred the awful event.
Miscreants go to jail. Sometimes employers, as well as employees, do too. People get fired. The courts levy fines. Some victims’ families get settlements. Lawyers earn their percentages. And eventually the accident exits not just from the media, but from our consciousness.
But maybe we-the-public should turn those rigid fingers-of-blame inward. Accidents do happen. But government has a role as the protector of the public. We have fire codes, building codes, construction standards. We have rules about building materials, about occupancy, about exits. We know the hazards of manufacturing. And we know that stringent regulations – while they may not guarantee safety – offer protection.
We also know that all those regulations raise the cost of doing business. So employers, particularly ones struggling with deadlines and cost-overruns, too often evade the standards, delay the inspections, pay a fine, promise to fix the violation, then wait for another inspection to request another delay. With the collapse of the Molasses Tank in Boston, the owners were rushing to fill orders for wartime munitions during World War I; if they had shut the facility, they would have risked bankruptcy. The textile factory in Bangladesh was churning out cheap clothes; decent working conditions would have raised the cost and, perhaps, nudged Western buyers to take their business somewhere cheaper. Mining companies argue that too-stringent regulations are not only unnecessary but unwise: the mines will close, leaving the miners unemployed.
And legislators keen to promote, or appease, businesses go along. They want new businesses to set root in their communities. They want employment to rise, unemployment to fall. So legislatures enact loose standards. Inspection departments hire too few inspectors to inspect more than occasionally. The regulations set low sanctions – allowing for warnings ad nauseam. Overseas, in those cheap-labor Edens, governments eager for foreign investment may try to impose minimal standards, only to have companies reject, or ignore, those standards. (The Gap, a major Western purchaser of Bangladeshi-made clothes, recently hesitated to agree to stronger safety measures.)
Consider Texas (the New York Times, “After Plant Explosion, Texas Remains Wary of Regulation,” May 9), a “business-friendly” state. Not only are taxes low, but the legislature has kept the heavy hand of government off management. The state has no statewide fire code or enforcement, nor do most of its counties, including McLennan County, where West is located. Some communities (even Houston) don’t have zoning rules. Employers are not required to contribute to worker compensation funds. That is the good-for-business news.
The darker side: more accidents. Texas leads nationally in workplace fatalities (more than 400 annually). With more than 1,300 industrial/chemical plants, Texas has three times as many accidents, four times the injuries and deaths, of Illinois, another home to high-risk sites, with more than 950 plants. Illinois, though, has fire and safety codes.
In the West, Texas, fertilizer plant, perhaps a deranged person set the fire; but regulations for storage might have mitigated the accident. And zoning laws would have separated residential areas from the industrial uses.
The government is us. We tell it what we want it to do; we tell it when to stand down. Do we really want government to stand down when it comes to fire and safety regulations?
Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2013
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