After graduating high school, I went to work in a factory. Almost four decades later, one co-worker remains etched in memory as a grotesque reminder that the good old days weren't all they're cracked up to be.
Little Joe was a diminutive, jovial Polish immigrant who worked as a welder. He'd often fill lunch breaks with a stream of dirty jokes that made us laugh as much at his thick accent and skewed punch lines as the crude humor.
I laughed less than most. That's because when Little Joe held court I tended to fixate on his hands, or what was left of them. Only half of his 10 fingers were fully intact. The rest had been completely or partially severed in a series of industrial accidents. I recall one conversation that made me cringe as Joe casually described how each digit got crushed, pinned, sliced or diced. Many other workers at that factory also bore mutilations as souvenirs of years of mind-numbing work around churning machinery, but Joe's injuries lapped the field.
Little Joe never sued or even blamed anyone for his pain and suffering. His was the mindset of pre-OSHA America, particularly among folks like him who came from much harsher societies. Excruciating and disfiguring injuries were seen as merely occupational hazards one must put up with in return for the privilege of earning a living in this great land of ours. Sure, there were things the bosses might do and sometimes did to reduce injuries, but only if those things didn't cost more than occasionally rushing someone to the hospital.
Investigative ReportI thought about Little Joe while reading and viewing a devastating investigative report in the Jan. 8, 2003, New York Times and a Jan. 9 broadcast of PBS TV's "Frontline." A program titled "A Dangerous Place to Work" hammered Tyler Pipe and various sister companies owned by Birmingham, Ala.-based McWane Inc.
Drawing from public documents and interviews with numerous past employees, the joint investigation charged McWane's management with being callously indifferent to worker safety in a quest to ramp up production. Reporters cited some 4,000 injuries in McWane foundries and nine deaths since 1995 owing to safety hazards that have resulted in more than 400 OSHA violations. (McWane purchased Tyler in 1995.)
The complete report, including McWane's response, can be accessed at the "Frontline" Web site www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/.
A New EraMy intent here is not to further bash these companies. Rather, it is to rejoice that gross breaches of industrial safety today are remarkable enough to draw the attention of the country's most powerful news media. Frontline's cameras depicted hazards in the McWane plants that were analogous to some that I witnessed back when I worked alongside Little Joe. In the 1960s, those conditions were more the rule than the exception in factories and jobsites throughout the land.
Let's acknowledge that the creation of OSHA surely has led to improved worker safety, but let's not give the bureaucrats more credit than they deserve. One of the themes of the New York Times/"Frontline" investigation was how toothless OSHA turns out to be in policing flagrant safety hazards.
Last July, Tyler Pipe paid a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to violations leading to a worker's death. That sounds like a lot of money, but to a company like Tyler with sales way up in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it's about like one of us paying a traffic fine.
OSHA was formed as part of an evolution in our culture and values. It's similar to the crusade against drunk driving that has diminished highway fatalities in our country over the past few decades. Tougher law enforcement has something to do with it, but the main reason is a shift in public attitudes.
People of my generation grew up in an era when yokels would brag about how much they could drink and still be able to function behind the wheel. Today, that kind of posturing is likely to bring icy glares from one's companions and a wrestling match over the car keys.
Construction, though still among the most hazardous of occupations, also is much safer than it used to be, and only partly because of OSHA. Another reason is the most powerful incentive of all -- economics. Mechanical contractors are threatened even more by large insurance premiums than OSHA fines, and the biggest threat of all is the increasingly common practice of excluding project contractors whose safety records fall below industry norms.
As the Beatles put it in a bouncy song, things are getting better all the time. It's good to know that when companies exhibit Neanderthal safety consciousness, someone thinks it notable enough to expose on national TV.