Industrial Homicide: Americans Dying for Work

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Top Tier Gear USA

Every day, 12 workers die on the job in America – often because a corporation has defied regulations or ignored standard safety procedures. Many more die prematurely from work exposure to toxic materials.

If corporations are people, as Mitt Romney and the Republican majority on the Supreme Court claim, then their privileges as humans come with the responsibility to act humanely. Corporate-people must fulfill their obligations to workers and communities. Profit can’t be their sole raison d’etre. That’s not how it is with flesh-and-blood people. If it were, then society would condone profit-motivated murder, like killing a parent for insurance money. Now that they’re people, corporations have an even greater duty to prevent deaths on the job. And if they don’t, they must be held accountable in criminal court the same way a money-grubbing son would be if he murdered his parents for the life insurance.

Workplace explosions get all the attention. Three that occurred two years ago next month killed 47 workers. Within 18 days, seven died at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.; 29 in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and 11 on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Writing about industrial homicide in the American Criminal Law Review last year, Jane F. Barrett, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and director of its environmental law clinic, said of these explosions:

“In all of these cases, safety procedures were bypassed or standard operating procedures were ignored due to pressures on plant personnel to save time and/or money.”

There it is – the profit factor. Making money trumping worker survival. Occasionally, people accept risk when personal gain is held out as a possibility. But in the workplace, corporations take the gains while imposing the risks on workers. Barrett put it this way:

“And in all cases, the brunt of the consequences was borne by those who did not share in the economic rewards of the corporate non-compliance (with regulations).”

In 4,500 such instances each year, the worker’s death is quick and the cause obvious. In many more cases, however, the deaths are slower, and the reason — workplace exposure to toxic substances –less evident. Workplace exposure causes more than 40,000 premature deaths annually from conditions like cancer and neurological disease.

Beryllium, primarily used in weapons production, is one of those deadly substances. It causes a lung disorder called chronic beryllium disease (CBD). It is so toxic that no safe level has ever been established. Finally, this year, decades after studies established the inadequacy of the 60-year-old “taxi cab standard” that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) used for worker exposure to beryllium, a more stringent level may be set. The exposure level suggested in February by my union, the United Steelworkers, and Materion Brush, the only U.S. producer of pure beryllium metal, is 90 percent lower than the current limit.


As it stands now, corporate-people who commit industrial homicide are cited and fined. This is not effective. Over the past decade, the federal government repeatedly fined BP tens of millions for violations, including the highest fine in OSHA for an explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 170. That didn’t change BP’s behavior. Five years later, the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and seriously injured 17.


The only way to make a difference is to hold accountable those executives and managers who are the actual flesh-and-blood of corporate-people, the executives and managers who determine corporate culture, who decide to violate standards and risk workers’ lives in exchange for profits. Professor Barrett, in her law review article, described how it could work:

“Personal accountability, which creates a risk to an individual that he might go to jail as a result of decisions he makes, can change behavior and drive deterrence.”

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Contributed by Leo Gerard of AlterNet.

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