1990s >> 1992 >> no-1053-may-1992

Violence at work

If Prince Charles falls off his horse or the Queen Mother gets a fish bone stuck in her throat we are invited to grieve over such matters by newspaper headlines and bulletin announcements to the accompaniment of Big Ben’s chimes. When 500 workers are killed at work every year, however, this is not regarded as dramatic news. It is often looked at as something pretty much beyond human control. To describe these deaths as “accidents”, however, can be seen as perverse because although they are not intended by employers, neither are they chance, unpredictable incidents. They are, in most documented cases, plainly foreseeable.

In November 1991, Tony Linehan, the government’s chief factory inspector, announced that industrial injury claims have doubled since 1985. On average two people a day are killed at work and 3,500 are injured. Almost half-a-million people each year suffer as a result of their working environments.

The violence of commerce

 First let us consider the extent of the problem. Employment is violent. In 1989- 90 426 people, a third of them in the construction industry, died in violent incidents at their work. They were burnt, drowned, asphyxiated, electrocuted, crushed and impaled. In the same year over 21,000 suffered “non-fatal serious injuries”—amputations, for instance—and 160,000 suffered “serious injuries”.

In addition, it is estimated that each year as many as 10,000 workers or more die a slow and painful death from the effects of industrial disease.

Most of these deaths are unnecessary and easily preventable. According to the Health and Safety Executive over 70 percent of workplace deaths are the fault of management and their failure to provide proper equipment or training or supervision.

Examining the same problem in the USA. one writer has given the issue a particularly striking perspective. He estimates that in 1972 the number of people in the USA dying from occupational hazards (diseases and accidents) was 114,000, whereas only 20,600 died as victims of personal homicide. Represented on a time clock, for murder there would be one personal killing every 26 minutes but:

  If a similar clock for industrial deaths were constructed . . .  and recalling that this clock ticks only for that half of the population that is the labour force—this clock would show an industrial death about every four and a half minutes! In other words in the time it takes for one murder on the time clock, six workers have died just trying to make a living!

(J. Reman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. 1979 p.75).

Blackspot Construction is a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report which analyses the circumstances of 739 deaths in the construction industry between 1981 and 1985. Referring to these deaths, John Rimmington, the Director-General of the HSE, said “they represent a very saddening loss of life, particularly because most of the deaths could have been prevented” (Emphasis added). The report shows that the immediate reasons for most deaths were lack of supervision, inadequate training and lack of attention to detail:

    The figures in this report clearly show that the basis causes of the deaths of 739 people from 1981-1985 have not changed over the last ten years. There were, on average, two deaths every week on construction sites. Ninety per cent of these could have been prevented. In 70 per cent of cases, positive action by management could have saved lives. (Emphasis added). (HMSO, 1988, p.4).
In another report, Agricultural blackspot (1986), a study of 296 deaths between 1981 and 1984 the HSE concluded that in 62 percent of cases “responsibility rested with management”. Again, in Deadly Maintenance (1985), a study into deaths at work in a range of industries, the HSE concluded that “management were primarily responsible in 54 percent of cases”.

There is some evidence, as you might expect. that the toll on workers gets worse during an economic recession. Serious injuries, for example, suffered by young people on the government’s Youth Training Scheme increased by 86 percent between 1986 and 1990.

In fact, the Health and Safety Commission published research last December indicating that the number of accidents at work is six times higher than the official figure.

Consider the social system in which these deaths and injuries occur. We live in a class-divided society. One economic class of men and women between them own and therefore control the means by which we all live. They own the factories, offices, transport and communication systems and so forth: in short the means of producing and distributing wealth. The empty and fraudulent rhetoric of people like Margaret Thatcher and John Major speaks of a “property-owning democracy” and “classless society”, and the nationalistic nonsense of John Putnam, Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party tries to fool people into thinking that everyone beneath the Union Jack has a common interest.These are shibboleths which are entirely refuted by the economic facts.

As the Inland Revenue, a body not known as an avid supporter of the Socialist Party, reported in January in Inland Revenue Statistics 1991, the richest one percent of the population today own more marketable wealth the poorest 50 percent of the population. In fact, the top one percent owns three times more than the poorest half of the population.

In this system wealth is produced not directly to satisfy human needs but to produce a profit for the owners of the means of production. If something is not profitable it will not be produced. In the cutthroat economic rivalry between companies to win contracts or keep their customers, costs are cut to a minimum wherever that is possible. Employers do not get rich in capitalism by being kind or charitable. Safety is often an expensive matter to a company. It involves paying for training, equipment and, perhaps, using methods which take longer than those which are unsafe.

The reports of the HSE are replete with how the cost-benefit principle of capitalism operates to cause death and injury but two vivid examples from other sources demonstrate what often happens when profits and safety are counterpoised.

On 13 September 1978, Ford Motor Company was indicted in Indiana, USA, for reckless homicide. A Grand Jury decided after three days of deliberation that Ford was to be tried as a responsible party for the deaths of three teenagers, who were burnt to death when their Ford Pinto burst into flames following a low-speed, rear-end collision. Many people had died in similar incidents all over the USA. One writer on the issue has stated that “by conservative estimates Pinto crashes have caused more than 500 deaths”. (M. Dowie, in Injury and Death for Profit, 1987, cd. S. Hills). The actual trial resulted in the company being acquitted but evidence was produced in the case which demonstrated that Ford was aware of the danger posed by the Pinto but had used a cost-benefit calculation to decide that the cars should be left unaltered with their owners. It would have cost less that 11 dollars per car to remedy the defect but calculations had shown that subsequent insurance claims resulting from the number of people predicted to be killed and injured would not exceed the $137 million that it would cost to recall and alter all the Pintos it had sold.

This sort of cost-benefit analysis, which relegates human life below the considerations of profit, is not peculiar to Ford Motor, Company or to recent developments. It is a feature endemic to the system of commerce. Max Weber commented on this issue in relation to its implications for capitalism in American cities. In 1904 he observed that:

After their work, . . . [Chicago] workers often have to travel for hours in order to reach their homes.The tramway company has been bankrupt for years. As usual, a receiver who has no interest in speeding up the liquidation manages its affairs: therefore, new tramcars are not purchased. The old cars constantly break down, and about four hundred people a year are thus killed or crippled. According to the law, each death costs the company about $5,000 which is paid to the widow or heirs, and each cripple costs $10,000, paid to the casualty himself. These compensations are due so long as the company does not introduce certain precautionary measures. But they have calculated that the four hundred casualties a year cost less than would the necessary precautions. The company therefore does not introduce them.

(Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 1958, H. Gerth, C. Wright Mills, p.16).

It is this sort of thing that may have been in the mind of John Cullen, the Chairman of the HSE, when he said in 1989 that:

  The enterprise culture, the opening up of markets, and the need to survive competition place businesses under unprecedented pressure . . . the scale and pace of technological change means that increasing numbers of people—the public as well as employees—are potentially at risk.(Guardian, 4 May 1989).

Within capitalism, economic imperatives will always prevail. In a contest between principles of profit, morality and religion, profit will always triumph.The Chairman of British Steel will not keep Ravenscraig steel works open this year because it is morally better that 1200 people should not lose their jobs. The government will not make Sainsbury and Tesco shut on Sundays because various vicars and priests implore commerce to respect religion, neither will they be shut to protect the economic interests of shop workers.

The economic mechanisms of capitalism mean that workers will be killed and injured on the sacrificial altar of profit whenever the pressures are strong enough.

Anyone in any doubt about this can consider the position of workers as a result of health and safety legislation. The annual pattern of death and injury has been no different under Labour governments than it has under Tory governments, and there is no significant change as the result of the introduction of legislation like the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974. The annual profile of deaths at work has remained the same every year for the last 17 years since the coming into force of the Act.

Even now there are people clamouring, often with the best intentions, to bring in new legislation to amend the rules of capitalism. They seek to raise the fines paid by companies who kill or maim workers; to make the police investigate all construction site deaths and to make coroners call directors as witnesses so as to incriminate them.

These proposals, however, even if implemented exactly in accordance with the wishes of the reformers, cannot really deal with the problem because they leave intact the system of commerce and the paramountcy of companies. As Marx observed, within capitalism large employers have an interest in supporting safety legislation. By supporting legislation like the Factory Act of 1867, many capitalists were able to improve their positions by, on the one hand, having a hand in making sure the law was not going to adversely affect them and, on the other, making sure that it did impose conditions which could not be met by their less prosperous rival firms who would be put out of business by the costs involved in meeting the new safety requirements.

Only by transforming the basis of the production of wealth can we eradicate the violence of work and make safety its number one priority. In those circumstances it may even be safe enough to allow walking disaster areas like the royals to have a go at some useful work.

Gary Jay