Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dangerous Jobs

As many of you know, two weeks ago my border collie, Viggo, ran into me at full speed, breaking my shin bone (tibia) just below the knee. The ER doctor said that he had only seen such fractures as a result of motorcycle accidents.  The crackup will put me on crutches and out of commission until late August.

Many times since the accident, my thoughts have turned to the blessings of modern medicine and Medicare coverage. The medical bills will undoubtedly run into four figures (covered mostly by insurance), and I will be able to recuperate in relative comfort, thanks to the diagnostic tools, medication, and equipment available.  For example, when a traditional cast caused lots of pain in the injured knee, they were able to replace it with a lightweight knee brace.
My view of my crutches and $1,000 brace.
However, nearly as many times as I have given thanks for this medical assistance, I have thought about what recuperation would be like without these resources. More specifically, I've pondered what it was like a century ago for workers to deal with on-the-job injuries: no modern medicine, no insurance, no job security.

If someone were injured in the Homestead Works in the 1890s, he would be sent home to recuperate. He would not be working, so he would not be paid during this hiatus. If the injury proved to be disabling, the company might hire him back in a position such as watchman.  If he were unable to do this sort of work, he would be out of luck, a breadwinner-turned-burden for his family.  Often his co-workers would pool their resources to help out the injured worker and his dependents, but there would be no help from the company.  If he couldn't make steel, he was of no use to them.

Of course, steel companies weren't alone in this attitude.  Other dangerous industries, such as mining and manufacturing, spurned disabled workers. It should come as no surprise, then, that it was workers in these dangerous jobs who were the most likely to get into disputes with their employers over working conditions, length of workday, and wages.  In a previous blog post, I noted that the most violent clashes between company and labor were in these industries: for example, the Pullman Strike, and the strikes by coal and metal miners.  By far the most clashes came in the most dangerous industry: mining.  Even today, mining is listed as one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the US--and probably even more dangerous abroad (as apparent in recent mining disasters in China and Peru).
On Oct. 14, 1913,the Senghenydd Colliery Disaster in South Wales killed 439 miners. The likely cause was a methane explosion that ignited coal dust. It was the deadliest mine accident in the UK, the worst in a series of  mine disasters in Wales that occurred during a period of shoddy mine safety, 1850-1930.
 When I was growing up in the Steel Valley in the 'Fifties, a sign at the Amity Street gate of the Homestead Works read: "This plant has operated ___days without a disabling injury."  The key word is of course "disabling", because some worker or workers sustained injuries probably every hour of every working day.  Every time we'd drive by, I'd look at the sign, happy if the number of days went into the hundreds.  If there had been a recent injury, I'd wonder what had caused it.
The iconic 1950's photo of steelworkers going off shift through the Amity Street entrance.

Obviously, the most dangerous aspect of steel making is the extremely high temperatures required in  production (2,800degrees F).  Another dangerous aspect is the violent result of molten metal meeting water. Hundreds of workers were killed or maimed in accidents resulting from the explosions that ensued.  Add to these hazards the possibility of being crushed, run over,or torn up by mill machinery. Capt. Bill Jones, an engineer who dramatically increased production for Carnegie Steel and champion of better working conditions for steelworkers, died in this way in 1889.  He was investigating a problem with an open hearth in the Edgar Thompson Works when molten steel and slag broke out of the furnace, blowing him into the casting pit, killing him and another worker. He was given a hero's funeral--an honor he deserved--but I'm sure the family of the Hungarian immigrant who died with him received neither funeral nor compensation from the company.
Tapping an open hearth furnace.  In Darkness Visible Emlyn and Virgil take on the job of shoveling manganese into the ladle with the molten tapstream only feet away--a necessary task in 1892.
Today OSHA and other governmental regulative agencies try to protect workers in these dangerous occupations.  These regulations went into place with the rise of unions in the 1930s.  Undoubtedly many lives and limbs have been saved by these regulations.  That's why it appalls me when companies and politicians try to dismantle these safeguards, as did Michelle Bachmann last year when she attacked regulations in the very dangerous meatpacking industry (where workers are mostly immigrants).  Many workers in these high-risk jobs don't have medical insurance. If you take away safety regulations, you are putting them in double jeopardy--a return to the bad old days of pre-union labor in America.

If you are detached enough from this issue to think that Bachmann is on the right track, check out the online OSHA accident photos.  If you're like me, you'll be sick after looking at the first few.  And these happened with regulations in place, with most companies gladly complying with them.  Unions began disappearing from the American workplace ever since Ronald Reagan busted the air traffic controllers' union in the 1980s. What will happen when unions and the protections they bring to workers are gone for good?

A worker on a modern electric-arc furnace.  Even today, with protective clothing and safety equipment, steelworkers daily confront (as Virgil in Darkness Visible puts it) "puddles of hell."
"After the first death, there is no other."  Dylan Thomas