Give Worker Safety Priority

THE least-skilled, lowest-paid worker in any industry is as important to his employer as the company president when it comes to the right to work under safe, healthful conditions.There are laws and regulations designed to provide such protection, but unless they are administered well and vigorously, laborers on the lower employment rungs may not get that protection. Industries that employ unskilled, poorly educated, and unorganized workers sometimes put cost-saving practices ahead of safety at the work place. Governments are morally and legally responsible for seeing that workers' safety and rights are protected. Two recent incidents illustrate the right and wrong ways to meet this obligation: On Sept. 3 a fire in a Hamlet, N.C., chicken-processing plant resulted in 25 deaths and 56 injuries. The plant had no fire evacuation plan; workers were trapped behind locked exit doors; state inspectors had never been in the facility to check conditions; United States Department of Agriculture inspectors, who visited the chicken processing plant daily, apparently did not notice - or didn't report - violations of safety regulations. Last June 1 a similar fire occurred at Tyson Foods in Little Rock, Ark. The building was almost destroyed, but all of the plant's 100 employees were safely evacuated in three minutes. Tyson Foods promotes worker safety, has a safety management staff, conducts safety research, and has fire brigades and emergency response teams. Many similar plants have such safety programs; unfortunately, many others still don't. In the latter, employees frequently work for minimum wages and are under pressure to meet demanding production goals in potentially hazardous conditions. But the Hamlet victims could have been protected had both state and national agencies, as well as plant management, acted responsibly. A report on the Hamlet fire, issued Dec. 3 by the US House Committee on Education and Labor, faulted both North Carolina and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The state is one of 23 whose safety inspection programs are overseen by OSHA. Rep. William D. Ford (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the Hamlet fire wasn't "an unavoidable accident.... There appears to have been a total lack of enforcement of even the most elementary safety standards." It has been noted that, although North Carolina officials indicated the state could afford only 27 state safety inspectors, it refunded $453,000 to the federal government that could have been used to hire more inspectors. No more "lessons" such as that provided in Hamlet are needed. Such events are neither unavoidable nor inevitable. As Congressman Ford said, they can and must be prevented, and it is the duty of companies, governments, and individual citizens to see that they are.

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