A Careful View Of WORKER SAFETY
It was THE most exciting baseball game in the long rivalry between the Shady Valley Primadonnas and the Oak Town Sludge Puppies. Two out, two on, the bottom of the ninth, the home team down by a run, and Harold "Hair Doo" Dueterman -- the Primadonnas' star center fielder -- up to bat. What excitement. What drama. Unfortunately Hair Doo hit the ball directly at the Primadonnas' runner on first. A line shot to the head. The runner was out. He was also unconscious. Game over. That was not the end to the excitement, though. Chucky Calhoun, the peanut vendor, was inadvertently decked by an enthusiastic fan and suffered a number of injuries as he tumbled down some concrete steps. Chucky, who has made repeated complaints to the Primadonnas owner (D. J. Goodluck) about unsafe working conditions, has filed a workers' compensation claim. What a mess. Too bad Hair Doo just didn't strike out like he usually does.
Life is Risky, Then Your Die
What's the big deal about workers' compensation and workplace safety? Does Chucky Calhoun, the peanut vendor, have a valid claim? Let's pursue the subject.
First, we need to clearly note that life is a risk. Nowhere in the manual of life are we promised any guarantees about safety. After all, childbirth itself is a pretty dangerous event. Then there's a chance that a deranged kindergarten classmate will bring pointed scissors, rather than the rounded ones, to class. The dangers of life aren't limited to school either. We daily face the risks imposed by stray dogs, plummeting stock brokers (who invested unwisely), potholes in the sidewalks, and physicians who graduated at the bottom of their medical school class.
With that said, we also need to note that most of us are better off reducing risk. This goes back to our little discussion of risk averse, risk loving, and risk neutral in Fact 6, Our Unknown Economy. Those who are risk averse prefer certainty over risk and are willing to pay for it. While there are risk lover types who are inclined to gamble or seek danger in risky occupations like mercenary soldier, shark trainer, and door-to-door solicitor, most of us don't want to put our lives on the line every day.
Now what does that mean for the millions of workers who expect to return home each night with the same number of appendages and vital organs that they left with in the morning? It means that they want to pursue a job and earn an income without a high risk of death or injury. It means that they would just as soon have a safe place to work.
But can they?
The Power of the Second Estate
We've often noted in our pedestrian journey that the second estate tends to have more market control that the third estate. This is particularly evident for labor. The history of the good old U. S. of A. is etched with labor markets dominated and controlled by businesses of the second estate. Those markets saw very low wages and extremely hazardous working conditions. When one company employed everyone in a given town, either in the company mine, company factory, or company store, the workers had very little to say about the wages and workplace safety. They either worked for THE company or they didn't work at all.
Second-estate dominance of the employment was pretty much the norm in the 1800s when the industrial revolution changed our economy from self-sufficient farmers, to overworked, underpaid, and frequently crippled factory workers. During this period, labor was treated by the second estate (as well as the first estate) with the same amount of compassion as a lump of coal. Labor was just another input into the great profit-making engine of the U. S. economy. With second estate dominance of the labor markets, a dismembered or deceased worker could be readily replaced by another.
Meanwhile, Back to the Present
Workplace conditions have changed significantly since the early days of the industrial revolution. Labor unions and assorted protective government laws have improved worker safety enormously. Oh sure, you'll find an occasional "sweatshop" where the workers (usually illegal immigrants) are overworked and underpaid in a very dangerous work environment, but unions and government have made big strides to prevent this.
Let's see where we currently stand on this worker safety thing:
- Workers, and their array of champions in unions and government, continue to eliminate workplace risks. The primary government advocate of worker safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA). OSHA is often criticized (by businesses) for pushing this safety topic too far, the same sort of malady that inflicts many government agencies. OSHA has a job to do and they're going to damn well do it regardless of the consequences.
- Businesses, of course, have their eyes on the bottom lines. All of those blasted safety rules and regulations forced on them by OSHA and the unions increase cost and reduce profit. And if a business fails to comply with some blasted nit-picky little rule, then they have to pay a fine.
Like a number of other things we've seen on our journey, these two sides of the worker safety debate are both partly right and partly wrong. That, however, is the beauty of our system -- a balance between the interests of the second and third estates. Our real problems emerge if one side gets too much control over the situation. If OSHA stopped harassing business over worker safety, then we would probably find fingers, toes, and other appendages in the products we buy. However, if OSHA eliminated ALL risk in every job, then the stuff our economy produces would be so incredibly expensive that no one could afford them.
What does this all mean for Chucky Calhoun, the peanut vendor? To answer this, we need to evaluate the risk Chucky faced in the workplace. Were the aisles too narrow for passage? Were the steps covered with grease before each game? Were razor blades attached to the handrails?
Maybe Chucky's injury was his own fault. Maybe it was the result of negligence and irresponsibility on the part of D. J. Goodluck, the Primadonnas owner. Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply an avoidable accident.
That brings up the topic of workers' compensation. For the most part, anyone injured on the job, doing job-related stuff, can collect benefits provided by this government-run insurance program. The benefits include reimbursement for medical expenses and payment of lost wages.
The funds used to pay these benefits come from insurance premiums paid by businesses. Like other forms of insurance, these premiums depend on risk. Businesses that tend to be riskier for workers, as documented by past injuries, pay higher premiums.
Let's consider a few of the stickier points of controversy over workers' compensation:
- Small businesses can be bludgeoned into bankruptcy by excessively high insurance premiums. If a small company is unlucky enough to have several workers seriously injured, then premiums skyrocket through the roof, profit drops through the floor, and the owners file for bankruptcy.
- Perhaps moreso that other forms of insurance, workers' compensation is besieged with false claims. Some doctors, lawyers, and workers have made comfortable livings from this system, without the pain and suffering that comes from actual injuries.
- Workers' compensation is mandated at the federal level, but run by state governments. This leads to a great deal of variation in premiums and benefits from state to state. In fact, lower employer premiums and worker benefits are often used to attract new businesses into a state. Good for business, bad for workers.
The Hidden Injuries
Another pretty important problem with worker safety is the number of unseen, long-term health problems caused by employment. Our economy is becoming so technologically complex that a growing number of work-related injuries are not of the "chopped-off-toe" variety. People may unknowingly worked around hazardous chemicals and cancer-causing substances, or performed repetitive tasks that lead to injuries and health problems years or even decades later. The inability to know for sure which chemical caused your cancer or which repetitive task crippled your hand throws a kink into the workers' compensation system. Some who shouldn't collect benefits do and others who should don't.
While a number of risks have been eliminated from the workplace over the past century, the complexity of our economy means that working today may be as hazardous as ever.
What can you do about worker safety?
Some Tips on Workplace Safety
- You need to recognize that risk and the potential for injury that's an inherent part of life. You can reduce it, but you can't eliminate it.
- As such, you need to be alert for any sorts of "accidents waiting to happen" around the job. If your employer greases the steps leading up to the building every morning, then you probably have a good cause for concern.
- If you have safety concerns, the first action is to inform your employer. Most employers of today aren't bloodthirsty, sadistic, swine, but do recognize that healthy workers are productive workers. If not, OSHA is ready to remind them of this fact.
- Perhaps most importantly, with the growing complexity of our economy, be alert to potential long-term hazards. Do you occasionally get the whiff of some strange chemical through the ventilation system? Is this a health hazard? You might want to find out.