When Workplace Safety Is Regarded As 'Overhead'

By most accounts, the Bangladesh tragedy could have been prevented by management simply spending more money on safety.
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One very important reason why more than 100 workers (mainly women) died November 25 in the fire that engulfed Tarzeen Fashions, a textile plant outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, is because management chose not to spend the necessary money to prevent such a tragedy from occurring. In an industrial setting, safety can be a significant expense. Safety costs money. And, as we all know, money is everything.

During my tenure as a union rep, I once had a revealing safety-related conversation with a mid-level manager whom I'll call "Fred." An outgoing, talkative man roughly my own age, Fred liked to boast that because he had a degree in mechanical engineering, as well as an MBA (both from UCLA), he was exactly the kind of manager a modern company was looking for.

He liked to tell people who his mechanical engineering background proved he couldn't be "bullshitted," and that his advanced business degree from a respected college proved he "could lead people." Clearly, this was a man destined for bigger things. Even though I sort of liked Fred (like me, he was a serious baseball fan), lots of people in the plant -- both management and hourly -- didn't. They found him obnoxious.

In any event, Fred was the first person I ever heard refer to industrial safety as "overhead." Our union was a couple of months away from sitting down with the company and beginning formal negotiations on a new contract. I would be chairman of the negotiating team. Presumably, Fred thought he could soften me up with a sobering overview of the plant's economic status. I didn't hold this transparent little tactic against him. Business was business.

But Fred surprised me by describing plant safety (along with raw materials, labor costs, training costs, maintenance costs, etc.) as "overhead." Admittedly, I'd never thought of safety as an "expense," certainly not in the way that raw materials were. For one thing, the prospect of people getting injured on the job seemed too personal; for another, because this was a union shop, and the plant was exceedingly safe, I'd never given it much thought.

When I questioned him about it, he made it clear that all variable costs were a matter of degree. You only have so large a pie, and it's up to you how you wish to slice it. How cheap do you go on raw materials before you compromise quality? How many weeks do you train a new hire before you waste money overdoing it? And how much do you spend on safety? You can spend a million bucks on guards and rails and warning signs, and still have people get hurt. It's all a matter of degree.

By most accounts, the Bangladesh tragedy could have been prevented by management simply spending more money on safety. Money for new fire extinguishers, money for more access, money for additional fire escapes, money for conducting regular evacuation drills, and money for old-fashioned fire prevention measures (since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires). Of course, if Tarzeen Fashions had been a union shop, the company would've been forced to spend that money.

Speaking of industrial safety, the LA Times (November 29, 2012) reported that David C. Hughart, former president of the Massey coal mine in West Virginia where, in 2010, 29 miners died in an explosion, had been charged with "conspiracy to violate federal mining safety laws." Among other things, Hughart is alleged to have alerted mine officials that federal inspectors were on their way to check out the premises, and urged them to falsify safety documents. Believe me, you could never dream of pulling a stunt like this with a union safety committee breathing down your neck.

In Bangladesh, the second-leading textile exporter in the world (behind China), industrial leaders and their government cronies are not only violently opposed to labor unions, they are more than willing to demonstrate that opposition. Earlier this year, Aminul Islam, one of the country's most respected labor activists, was brutally murdered. His body was found on a road outside Dhaka. He had been tortured.

As for those American companies (e.g., the Gap, Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger, et al) who, while having no direct ownership, rely on Bangladesh for their textile products, they plead ignorance. They say they had no knowledge of the woeful safety conditions. Like those upstanding German citizens who lived in towns adjacent to Nazi death camps, they claim to have had no idea what was going on.

Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net

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