Toward a Workplace Bill of Rights

Toward a Workplace Bill of Rights

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established in 1970, Congress made it a misdemeanor to cause the death of a worker by violating safety laws. Today, according to an AFL—CIO report, the average fine for a serious violation of workers’ health and safety is $709. A “serious violation” is one where there is a substantial probability of death or severe physical injury. Federal and state governments are also leading players. In June, for example, a federal advisory panel ruled that just because a worker was exposed for years to ionizing radiation at a nuclear facility did not make them eligible for compensation for their cancerous physical state. There are 22 kinds of cancer related to radiation poisoning. The International Labour Organisation, in a 2003 study, observed that 270 million workers worldwide are injured on the job every year, and 160 million are afflicted by a work-related illness. In the United States, there is an outstanding and little publicized rate of 5 workers of every 100 suffering a work-related illness or injury. In numbers that is about 4.2 million people. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health adds another dimension in a 2006 survey, namely, workplace violence. Five percent of private business establishments had an incident of violence during the year. Nowhere are the malicious motives of corporate capitalism more transparent than in the workplace. Of course, all of these figures are understatements. In order to be recorded, the injured or sick person has to report his or her condition and a management representative has to recognize it. In most cases there has to be a medical diagnosis and someone has to report it in some statistical health and safety database. What’s more is that there are many long-term “hidden” illnesses that may not become apparent for many years. Something like contact dermatitis may be immediately visible on the skin while asbestos in the lung may not be manifest for many years. What actions can we take to cope with the destructive character of the workplace that set limits on our quality of life? One level of action is the construction of a participatory economy. Robin Hahnel, an economist, has put forward the idea of a participatory economics. It is the “economics of equitable participation as opposed to the economics of competition.” It is mutual aid versus an isolated individualism. To achieve such an economy we would need to develop a supportive institutional structure. At the very least, a participatory economics would require a network of worker/community councils which would operate, in part, to enhance work and personal growth. In these councils—and certainly not in the counsels of capitalists—we can realize the protection of workers. One starting pointing is a “bill of rights” for workers—a manifesto to be supported by worker/community councils. To be sure, such a statement would is transitory. It is designed to correct most of the major causes of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions today. A Bill of Rights 1. The workday will be limited to four hours with a guaranteed living wage. 2. The salary schedule will be determined by a management council which will be organized as a nonhierarchical collective. 3. Known carcinogenic materials will be excluded from the workplace. 4. Other substances with known health hazards will be allowed only if there is a standardized mode of working with them. (This includes protective gear.) 5. New chemical compounds and physical equipment may only be introduced when their safety is assured. 6. Chemical processes will be strictly monitored both from the standpoint of worker exposure and the potential of leaks and accidents. 7. Muscular—skeletal hazards such as repetitive motions will be controlled with respect to speed of movement, duration, and the likelihood of injury. 8. Noise levels will be strictly dampened. 9. No workers will be exposed to ionizing radiation. We assume that there is no safe level of exposure. 10.Material hazard sheets will be posted everywhere along with appropriate protective gear. All workers will be trained in the safe usage of equipment and appropriate action in the event of an accident. 11. All equipment and work stations will be ergonomically designed. 12. All workers should be treated with dignity. While the achievement of these rights will provide for a healthier workplace, at least one major condition will have to be satisfied for genuine reform: workplaces will have to be self governing and owned and operated jointly by the workers and the community they serve.

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