This week has been a stark reminder that we can be our own worst enemy.
Amid the tragedies that occurred last week, West Fertilizer Co., a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded. The explosion killed at least 15 people, wounded upwards of 160 and caused the evacuation of nearby homes.
Days later, the Associated Press reported that the fertilizer plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985. Furthermore, the site had no contingency plan with the Environmental Protection Agency in case of an emergency.
Through our lax regulatory enforcement policies, we indirectly allowed this to happen. In America, politicians constantly bemoan how over-regulation threatens the profitability of businesses and industries, but there’s no voice of opposition, no voice reminding us of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the evils of crony and disaster capitalism or the impending disaster that is unfettered, under-regulated industry.
Legislators and pundits like Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich talk about “the old days” of America, where kids could freely find jobs without filing loads of paperwork, the days when employers didn’t offer a health insurance plan. These sentiments reinforce the ethos that government doesn’t need to protect works and consumers from businesses.
OSHA is responsible for overseeing the health and safety of more than 7 million work sites, conducting more than 40,000 inspections per year with only about 2,000 inspectors. The consistent devolution of OSHA, by corporations buying off regulators and helping to perpetuate the utterly hazardous conditions with which American workers have become familiar should alarm us to great extent.
Who – pundit, politician, CEO, leader, organization, union – has stepped forward on the national stage to introduce legislation that improves workplace safety and rearms OSHA with the resources and staffing necessary to protect the American people?
When did the defense of the American worker become a non-issue in politics and at what point will it once again become a rallying point for change? How many must suffer? How many explosions, deaths and injuries? How many workplaces must risk disaster for the rights of the worker to rise?
The West Fertilizer explosion is a wake-up call for the slumbering political status quo protecting negligent companies. Whatever hundreds of thousands of dollars that would have been needed to resolve the plant’s structural issues could have prevented this accident. The preventative cost would likely pale in comparison to the millions of dollars in property damage, as well as the incalculable loss of life we suffered last week.
In 2010 alone, nearly 4,700 people were killed at work, according to the Center of Public Integrity. Although our workforce numbers boost well into the millions and 4,700 is but a fraction, the silence and nonchalance has brought about a lax regulatory agency. In our mission for wealth and profit, we’ve made productivity a key factor, but forgotten the importance of regulatory oversight.
American safety has been handicapped by American productivity. While work conditions are not as outright hazardous as in the past, we as a nation have not been entirely successful; news story after news story speaks of a degradation of former regulations and standards.
With the forces of industry, lobbyists, Congress and capitalism working ideologically against American workers, the hope of salvation dissipates.