Killing workers is bad for the environment

SAFE ASSUMPTION Workers rate workplace safety their top concern. If employers and regulators showed the same concern, we'd have fewer environmental catastrophes too.

More than eight in 10 US workers — 85 per cent — rank workplace safety their top labour standards concern, ahead of family and maternity leave, minimum wage, paid sick days, overtime pay and the right to join a union, according to a new study from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

But despite this top rated concern about workplace safety, the study found the media and the public tend to pay closest attention to safety issues when disastrous workplace incidents occur. Even during those tragedies, the fate of workers is often overlooked – something starkly apparent in the recent oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The study, ‘Public attitudes towards and experiences with workplace safety,’ draws on dozens of surveys and polls conducted by NORC and was prepared for the Public Welfare Foundation, a Washington DC-based organisation that supports efforts to improve workers’ rights.

“Workplace safety is too often ignored or accidents taken for granted,” said Tom W Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey (GSS). “It is striking that coverage in the media and public opinion polls has virtually ignored the 11 workers killed by the blowout and destruction of the drilling platform.”

Instead, Smith pointed out, the media coverage and the polls focused on the environmental impact of the disaster, overlooking the worker safety aspects. But he noted that “if optimal safety had been maintained, not only would the lives of the 11 workers been saved, but the whole environmental disaster would have been averted.”

Robert Shull, the workers’ rights programme officer at the Public Welfare Foundation, commented: “Workplace safety should be a constant concern. Given the importance that workers themselves place on this issue, we should not have to mourn the loss of people on the job before government and employers take more effective measures to ensure that employees can go home safely after work.”

A 2006 survey by the management-side US Employment Law Alliance found that “a union’s ability to address safety concerns” was the leading factor in a worker’s decision whether or not to join a union, eclipsing concerns over getter higher wages, better benefits or increased job security.

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