Accidental costs

“Accidents will happen” is an old saying. Though “zero risk” is impossible with any form of technology, capitalism’s priorities—profits before people—make the production and distribution of wealth an unnecessary risky business. Many avoidable accidents happen and when they do attempts are made to keep the facts secret and to cover-up or whitewash the cause or extent of the disaster. Even where governments impose regulations, these are blithely ignored by profit-seeking entrepreneurs and state-owned enterprises alike

Road Rail and Air
Railways are relatively “safe”, yet in Yugoslavia a train crash killed 153 people because the driver and his mate both fell asleep, ‘‘overtired after working 300 hours in a month”. Cars are often unsafe, and manufacturers’ recalls of unsafe models for modification are hushed up.

In Yorkshire, five coach passengers were killed when the brakes failed on a hill: no maintenance had been done on the coach for three months! Such “accidents” are preventable.

Over San Diego, California, a Boeing 727 collided with a light aircraft and 151 people were killed. Among the factors involved was “foot-dragging” by the Federal Aviation Agency in not compelling the use of a cheap electronic collision-avoidance system on all planes. “The only thing that forces an FAA ruling is when enough people get killed”, said the president of the Airline Pilots Association. Another cause of air-crashes was apparent in the Zagreb mid-air collision between a Yugoslav charter plane and a British Airways flight, which killed 176 people. The Air Traffic Controllers were understaffed and overworked. That “accident” too was avoidable.

Occupational Hazards:
Simple precautions are often lacking, even when required by Government regulations. Sweeping rainwater off the roof of a modern six-storey office block, a workman fell 55 feet and was seriously injured. A government inspector declared: “the accident would not have happened if Premier House had been fitted with a guard rail”. A lawyer defending the contractors argued that “it put the matter into perspective to appreciate that Ronmac Services’ contract was worth about £60 and to put up a guard rail would cost over £2,000”. In industries like building and mining, occupational hazards are a dime a dozen, and accidents are seldom “news”.

The TUC handbook Health and Safety at Work lists many dangerous chemicals, including mercury, cadmium, beryllium, lead, chromium and polyurethanes made from isocyanates. There is also risk from inhaling dust, the worst known effects being from blue asbestos, arsenic, beryllium and coal dust. In Islington, London, the area round a scrap metal works was found to be seriously polluted with cadmium. Cadmium accumulates in the kidneys and the amount inhaled daily in Islington was above the level known to cause kidney damage. Pollution from secondary metal plants is not normally monitored—“the problem was uncovered only by chance”—and apparently “there are no national safety standards for heavy metals in the atmosphere”. No protection for people can equal bigger profits for business.

There is also a greater fire risk with new synthetic materials-polyurethane foam, foamed, polystyrene and other polymeric substances-used in the home, especially in upholstered furniture. These produce toxic fumes and smoke or create a rapid surface spread of flame. They are cheaper than wood, wool, leather or horsehair, just as paraffin heaters are cheaper than electricity in the working-class home. Lethal fires in workers’ homes are part and parcel of their wage-saving poverty.

This has been known to be lethal for more than half a century. Yet in American schools where ceilings were cheaply built with asbestos from 1940-1973, levels of the material in the atmosphere are close to those near asbestos mines and “in some cases, exposure exceeded workplace maxima . . .  at one school, simply moving books about in one room raised the exposure level to 13.5 fibres per cubic centimetre, well above the US government’s 10 fibre limit for the workplace”. Asbestos increases the risk of lung-cancer, including, incurable mesothelioma.

In Australia, the Baryulgil asbestos mine destroys the health of its mainly Aboriginal workers: asbestos tailings are used by the local council on the roads, there is a pile of it in the school playground and vast quantities of the dust in the settlement—“and our children—well, ever since my kids were born, ever since they could walk, they’ve been playing in heaps of shivers (asbestos tailings) and coming in snow white, covered in dust”. Half the workers have died from chest and lung complaints, 90 per cent of the Aborigines have lung problems, and the oldest was only 50 when he died. The company, and the New South Wales Division of Occupational Health, and the Australian Health Commission have known and done nothing about Baryulgil for more than twenty years.

Seveso—A “Preventable Accident”:
Sometimes chemical processes go wrong. This happened on July 10 1976 at Seveso, where a cloud of TCDD (dioxin)—an extremely poisonous by-product of trichlorophenol production—was vented into the atmosphere. Accidents with trichlorophenol production had occurred previously, injuring and killing workers in the USA (1949), West Germany (1953), Britain (Coalite), Holland, France and Italy. One plant was dumped at the bottom of the sea, another down a disused coalmine. Contamination is for keeps. The TCDD poison is 500 times stronger than strychnine and curare, 10,000 times more so than sodium cyanide. It deforms foetuses and may cause cancer. It also causes chloracne, liver and kidney damage, heart failure, crippling muscle pains, and many “neurological and psychological disorders”. In spite of the known dangers, after the accident workers were allowed to work “as normal” in the plant for nearly a week. A week later the hospital and local authority were informed about the poison, and evacuation of the area was not ordered till August 2—more than three weeks after the accident.

“Seveso should never have happened”, concluded The Economist. Yet the plant was run in compliance with Italian government regulations in that area over 300 chemical plants were breaking the notoriously lax regulations. The Economist emphasised that “Other Sevesos could happen, other Minamatas (a Japanese fishing village poisoned by mercury), other PCBs (a chemical whose nasty effects were not recognised till twenty years after it had been in widespread use)”.


In Michigan USA, cattle were fed PBB flame retardant accidentally mixed — more than once—into feedstuff. Health damage to the population has been serious—90 per cent of the people of Michigan had the chemical in their bodies five years later. PBBs are “close chemical cousins” of PCBs which are now regarded as carcinogens. PCBs are very long-lived in the environment, “in 1968 over 1000 Japanese were poisoned by eating rice oil contaminated by PCBs. Infants-unborn at the time of the incident-were poisoned by absorbing PCBs from their mothers’ milk”.


Living On A Dump:
In the USA 30-40 million tons of dangerous waste is produced each year. There are at least one thousand dumps which are “a serious danger to human health” and many others where information is lacking. No registers are kept of former chemical dumps. And in August 1978 Love Canal, where houses and a primary school were built over tons of waste chemicals, was declared a disaster area. “People who walked in the pools of foul-smelling chemicals found their shoes burnt through, and dogs became sick and lame . . . Health inspectors found no less than 82 chemicals — 11 of them known to cause cancer in animals, and at least one a known human carcinogen.” Miscarriage rates were 50 per cent above average and birth deformities are common among the children.


Such land is cheap to build on. Where the working class is treated like garbage, their houses will be built on garbage, and their children will make mud-pies in garbage. They will pay the price with cancer, epilepsy, asthma, liver, kidney and bladder complaints, miscarriages, nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts-byproducts of the production of pesticides in an economic system which cares passionately about profits and treats working people as expendable. Capitalism kills—by carelessness. Avoidable accidents expose the capitalist system’s priority—profits before people.


Charmian Skelton




Road and rail—Sunday Times 13/4/75 and 20/4/75. Air-crashes—Sunday Times 1/10/78. Occupational—Woking News and Mail 10/4/75. Chemicals—New Scientist 1/3/79, 7/12/78. Asbestos—NS 11/1/79 and 29/3/79. Sevcso—The Economist 17/6/78. PBBs and PCBs—The Observer 15/10/78, NS 11/1/79. Living on a Dump—The Listener 11/1/79.


Next: oil and nuclear risks, secrecy, negligence.