Danger zone: Do our workplaces value human dignity?

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Article Ethic of Life Social Justice
Employers are falling down on the job when it comes to ensuring worker safety.

In November Pope Francis raised eyebrows and generated headlines when he revisited some of the church’s long-standing concerns about the place of the common person within the vast, complex economic machinery known as the free market. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life,” he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” As Francis says, “Such an economy kills.”

Sadly for Lawrence Daquan Davis, the pope’s observation was no mere rhetorical flourish. Just a few months after he had become legally able to drink in the United States, the 21-year-old Davis was dispatched by a temp agency to work at a bottling facility for Bacardi Rum. Not long before the 5 o’clock whistle was due to blow, Davis was ordered into the bowels of a pallet-stacking machine undergoing maintenance. He was crushed to death when another worker started the system up.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Bacardi Bottling Corp. with 12 violations after investigating the incident. “A worker’s first day at work shouldn’t be his last day on Earth,” OSHA chief David Michaels said in a news release. “We are seeing untrained workers—many of them temporary workers—killed very soon after starting a new job. This must stop. Employers must train all employees, including temporary workers, on the hazards specific to that workplace—before they start working.”

Every job carries with it some potential for injury, and on-the-job deaths are unfortunately an inevitable part of the working landscape. In 2012, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,383 people were killed at work—an average of 12 workers every day.

Obviously it is impossible to eliminate all on-the-job risks, but an attentive regulatory regime and an ethical employer will seek to reduce such risks as much as possible because people matter and their suffering matters. That is what Pope Francis asks us to consider as he retreads Catholic social teaching for our times—the human face of our fellow worker.

Even temporary workers matter, especially as they have become a regular feature of the modern American industrial economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012 there were 2.54 million temporary workers in the country; in 1990, there were only 1.1 million. Such workers are cost savers for U.S. industry and corporations, but they can often be treated carelessly.

Worse, OSHA’s capacity to penalize indifference is limited. It can be cheaper for many employers to pay minimal penalties to OSHA than to absorb the costs of maintaining truly safe working conditions. Those restrictions on OSHA need to be lifted, so the agency can see to it that life and safety are restored to a corporate cost-benefit.

In a previous era, new workers could anticipate a period of skill building and on-the-job mentoring. But temp workers like Davis find themselves repeatedly thrust into new situations and sites. They don’t know the hazards, they don’t know the things not included in worker handbooks, and they have not developed the relationships with other workers and supervisors that typically mean someone will have their backs in potentially dangerous situations.

Francis worries that people “are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture . . . . It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new,” which Francis calls “exclusion.” The excluded, he writes, “are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited,’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’ ”

Lawrence Davis was no throwaway; he was no leftover. He was a young man with his whole life ahead of him, a life that should not have to have been traded away just for the chance to put bread on his table.

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 3, page 39).

Image: Flickr photo cc by bixentro