ABOUT THIS ISSUE
by the Editorial Collective
This issue of Science for the People magazine is concerned with occupational health and safety. The Stony Brook Chapter chose this topic, not because of any particular expertise we possess in this area, but rather because of its relevance to workers’ lives and to their organizing
efforts. We knew that at least 30% of America’s workforce suffers from job-related disease (see News Notes). This fact alone seemed to demand more attention than the infrequent articles which have appeared in previous issues (May and November, 1972 and July, 1974). The articles we received showed us that people were aware of the problems of occupational health and safety and determined to find solutions to them. However, these problems are complex and they demand our continued attention and increased action.
We begin our study with a brief description of the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970. The act, and the administration established to enforce it, represented the first “comprehensive” legislative response by the Federal Government to the demands of men and women for a safe work environment. But the law and its implementation are a weak, liberal response to these demands and do little to improve working conditions. We would expect no more from a Congress which derives its political power from capitalist corporations and is ultimately responsive to their lobbies. Despite its failings, OSHA can be useful in organizing efforts to increase workers’ control over job conditions.
We include an article by an OSHA inspector describing the background and motivations of his coworkers. He discusses the role of these well-meaning, liberal professionals whose class position and interest in self-advancement make it difficult for them to be responsive to workers’ needs.
Our article, “Asbestos: Science for Sale”, traces the history of the asbestos industry’s reaction to the dangers of asbestos. There has long been evidence that this “magic mineral” is responsible for killing and crippling a large percentage of those who work with it. We learn how this industry has been able to conceal the dangers of asbestos for a half century, often through the complicity of company-supported researchers and company doctors. In a compelling discussion of industry-oriented versus worker-oriented research, the author demonstrates the danger of believing that the conduct of science can be independent of the values of society.
Two articles emphasize the problems of workers who are even more exploited than most: women and workers in Puerto Rico. Discussions about the health of women workers often focus on their femaleness, thus obscuring the true basis of the problem. The article examining conditions in cotton mills and textile factories in Southern Appalachia demonstrates that women’s health problems derive from their position in society, not from biological factors. Women frequently work in the lowest-paying jobs with minimal security and thus are exposed to particularly extreme health hazards. Worker exploitation is also amplified when capitalism is extended abroad in search of maximum profits. The contribution from Puerto ‘Rico implies the need for international cooperation and solidarity among workers to prevent American manufacturers from transferring their unsafe plants to places where superexploitation exists.
A frequent complaint has been that past issues of this magazine have included too much theory and too little discussion of practice. Included in this issue are several articles about practical experience: a brief description by a worker of his organizing efforts in a Tennessee plastics factory, and three reports from worker- (vs. industry-) oriented occupational-safety-and-health projects.
The plastics worker discusses the difficulty of arousing unorganized, exploited workers to militancy—even when they are aware that they are exposed to serious health hazards. He also points out the frustration and disappointment the workers experienced in attempting to interest one of the more progressive unions in their problems.
The advantages of collective work and serious political discussion are apparent in the report from the New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Project. The authors present a clear analysis of the opportunities an.d limitations faced by professionals and students in helping workers fight for safer conditions and greater control in the workplace. The St. Louis Project, during its first year of existence, has been concerned with the question of whether to relate more closely to powerful but conservative unions, or to small, relatively ineffective, but radical rank-and-file caucuses. The failure to resolve this conflict has hindered the project’s development. The Bay Area report points out the internal difficulties that emerge when students, professionals, workers and union leaders attempt to reach political agreement on a meaningful occupational-health project. An important message from these three reports is the desirability of working directly with both the rank-and-file and progressive-union committees. By using both approaches occupational health and safety projects will grow to
meet the real needs of workers and sustain a high level of committment.
One important factor not analyzed in any of the articles we have printed is the role that stress and boredom play in occupational health and safety problems. Evidence strongly suggests that blue-collar workers are especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases—for example heart, digestive and nervous disorders—and that boredom is a factor in industrial accidents. In recent years, as industrial sabotage and young-worker absenteeism have increased, certain social scientists have lumped stress and boredom together under the rubrick of “worker alienation”. (This psychological definition of alienation is clearly different from the Marxist definition). In response, industry has
set about to “experimentally redesign” the workplace and to hire clinical psychologists to deal with these problems. From our point of view it is the objective conditions under which people labor that produce stress, boredom and alienation and it is therefore those conditions which must be changed rather than the inside of workers’ heads or their feelings. Cancer, accidents, tension and alienation cannot end before workers gain control of the workplace.
We are aware that as long as capitalism exists workers will be exploited by those who wish to maximize profits, and workplaces will remain unsafe. Workers have waged many struggles in the past, and will continue to struggle to gain control over their working conditions of which an important aspect is health and safety. Organizing around this issue is difficult, especially in hard times such as these when job security and bread-and-butter concerns take precedence. We urge more of our readers to take an active interest in this matter, and to participate in the difficult task of finding ways to employ science to serve the health and safety needs of workers.
To facilitate this work, we conclude with a brief compilation of some important information resources and various educational and organizing efforts for those who are ready to act.
This magazine is the Stony Brook Chapter’s second editorial effort. Working together these past few months has taught us a lot, brought us closer together, and allowed us to exchange and develop our political views. We urge and encourage other SESPA/SftP chapters to take responsibility for editing future issues of Science for the People magazine.
An Introduction to OSHA
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), passed by Congress in 1970, establishes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Department of Labor. The Act sets minimum standards for working conditions, which are enforced by the inspection of workplaces and the levying of fines of up to $1000 for each violation, up to $10,000 if the violation is willful or repeated. Any worker covered by OSHA can file a complaint and request an inspection of his or her workplace. (State, county and municipal workers, and some household workers are not covered.) An OSHA inspector will tour the plant with representatives
Both OSHA and its research arm, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), are underfunded and understaffed, to the extent that it would take 65 years to inspect every workplace just once. Many inspectors tend to favor the company’s point of view, labeling many hazards “nonserious”. The average fine is less than $28. Corporations exert pressure on NIOSH to propose lessstringent standards, and can force delays in enacting those standards that are approved. (For example, a new asbestos standard was approved in 1972 but the implementation date is not until 1976.)
These weaknesses are built-in. The standards are written by scientists and bureaucrats who won’t suffer if the standards are too weak; inspectors don’t have to spend much time in the plants where hazards are overlooked, and management can ask for exemptions from particular standards and appeal violations. However, OSHA standards can be an effective weapon for workers to use for educational purposes and in building support for health and safety struggles. To use OSHA effectively, workers must know the law thoroughly and be willing to use it aggressively.
The above information was taken from How to Use OSHA, written by the Occupational Safety and Health Project of Urban Planning Aid, Inc. (639 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Ma. 02139; telephone (617) 661-9220). The project is a nonprofit organization, established in 1969, which provides resources and information to workers who want to organize around health and safety.
CONTRIBUTORS: David Kotelchuck, I.N. Spector, Fran Ansley, Brenda Bell, New Haven Occupational Health and Safety Collective, Judy Day, Joel Swartz, Dennis Brubaker, Tomás Morales-Cardona, Gilberto Concepcion Suarez, Barbara Beckwith, Joe McDonald, David Chidakel, Ann Arbor Science for the People.
EDITORIAL COLLECTIVE: Carol Cina, Eric Entemann, Ted Goldfarb, Judy Kahn, Nick Lombardi, Sharon Rosen, Gary Strichartz, Lome Taichman, Synnove Trier.
PICTURES AND GRAPHICS:
p. 1 The Metro/LNS
p. 5 MCHR/CPF
p. 7 LNS
p. 11 Plympton/Health/ PAC
p. 12 Marie Berler
p. 15 Abramson/LNS
p. 16 For the People/CPS
p. 17 Ken Light/LNS
p. 18 CPF
p. 18 Survival Kit/UPA
p. 21 Nouvel Observateur/LNS
p. 22, 23 Bulletin Populaire / LNS
p. 25 Diego Rivera/AMEX/LNS
p. 27 Day Photographers
p. 28 LNS
p. 29 UPA/CPF
p. 31 The Movement/CPS
p. 34 Survival Kit/UPA
p. 37 Marie Berler
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