The response by Turkey’s President Erdogan, to the recent mining disaster in Soma Turkey, amounted to nothing more than a blasé ‘off-hand‘ remark; eg ‘These type of things happen all the time’. Such a complacent and blatant disregard for the tragic loss of life suffered by the miners and their families highlights the typical attitude of the pro-capitalist elite and their capitalist paymasters in industry, commerce and finance. At Soma over 750 miners were below ground on 13 May and at the time of writing, only 368 have been rescued. It has been announced that 274 have been classified as dead and that leaves 146 still missing somewhere within the shafts and twisted tunnels of this capitalist owned coal mine. Indeed, despite his overt callousness, Erdogan is correct; things like this – and many others – happen to workers all the time under the capitalist mode of production.
To the capitalist class and its political mouthpieces, working people are nothing more than disposable instruments whose primary functions are to provide labour-power for capitalists to exploit and to register their votes on election days for the political class. The welfare, health and safety of working people comes way behind the greed for profit of those who own, control and benefit from the investment of capital in industry, commerce and finance. This recent industrial tragedy is just the latest civilian disaster in the long war of the global capitalist class against the global working class. It is a class war in which in the 21st century, assaults on working people are still taking place on many fronts; in the home, in the shops, in the streets and at work in industry, commerce and banking.
Working class homes are under threat from high mortgage payments and rents; the cost of living at the shops is increasing, leaving many stark choices with regard to how much food and clothing they can afford. Protests by working people on the streets is being met by authoritarian police action. Draconian laws are passed which treat protest against oppression and injustice in the same way as real terrorists are treated. However, given the mining disaster in Turkey and the increasing IMF-led privatisations taking place around the world, for the purposes of this article I will consider the health and safety effects upon working people when they work for capitalist concerns in industry, commerce, and finance.
The routine injurious events at work which occur daily around the globe, are often classed by bourgeois investors, managers and academics as ‘accidents at work’ . But of course they are not really accidents. Accidents are occurrences which could not have been prevented by foresight and/or by implementing correct procedures. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, ‘accidents’ at work could have been avoided had management and share-holders allowed workers to install safety equipment and maintain safe working practices. However, the pressure from management, and investors for profits mean that only the minimum ‘cost effective’ equipment and procedures are used. And even in these cases pressure to speed up and take short-cuts are constantly cranked up leading to preventable injuries and deaths.
Unsafe Working practices.
When a capitalist concern argues, through its managers and directors, that fully adequate safety for its employees, or the public, is out of the question because of the expense, it is actually revealing much more than this. What is actually being admitted, is that setting aside enough of the surplus value (or profits) created for safe conditions of production, is out of the question, because the capitalist class wish to have that surplus value. It is an admission that they are not prepared to give up any more of it than they are forced to. The number of times safety procedures are known but under utilised, because the owners of capital or their representatives, treat working people as cheap disposable commodities, would hopefully be few. Not so!
The knowledge of how to avoid injury and damage to health is there, and the technological ability is there. What prevents these being used are the ethics of the capitalist oriented profit and loss account. The words “not economically viable” are used frequently to both mystify and bring to a dead-end any pursued line of inquiry which looks for blame in such circumstances. Capitalist economics include the ethics and morals of knowingly and willingly exposing their work force to dangers. They are the morals of anti-social greed and represent the heartless and unrelenting social psychology of the capitalist class. Let us look at just a few of the other general hazards and dangers to which working people are routinely exposed in the process of capitalist production.
Noise. Many industries, particularly those involving the use of machinery, produce large volumes of noise. Millions of workers suffer hearing loss or impairment as a result of years of exposure to excessive noise. Even noise at levels of frequency and intensity which are not painful, including low frequency and ultra-sound, can over a period of time, kill or irreparably damage the delicate hair-cells in the inner ear. The vast majority of damaging noises could be eliminated in the workplace by soundproofing or silencing. The technology is not space age but it would eat into the surplus value and so employers go – where they are forced to do something – for the cheaper solutions of earplugs or ear-defenders. These of course are often uncomfortable and can lead to additional problems for the wearer such as ear infections and skin irritation.
Vibration. This is a hazard that again could be eliminated for it is most often the result of bad design, cheap manufacture or poor maintenance. Damaging vibration at work is dependent upon its frequency, its amplitude and its duration. This determines whether and to what extent vibration damages internal organs and the bone structure. Spinal and lower back damage, for example, can occur among those who work on, or operate for long periods, heavy equipment such as earth movers and tractors, or other machinery which is actually designed to vibrate, such as pneumatic drills, compactors, jack hammers, drills hammers, chisels etc. Long-term damage to finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder joints including the painfully severe damage known as white-finger can occur for those who work with the latter category of tools. Of course a bad situation is made worse for those who operate such machinery in cold, damp, or wet conditions such as building and road workers.
Temperature. Extreme heat or even exposure to very hot conditions for long periods can lead to loss of fluids and salts and the body’s self-regulatory temperature system can become destabilised, or even collapse, and in extreme cases death can occur. Workers in forges, smelters, casting processes, ovens, furnaces and many others such as office workers are exposed regularly to oppressive conditions of heat and humidity.
At the other end of the temperature scale, millions of workers are forced to endure the effects of cold. Low temperatures create heat loss, and blood circulation is reduced, particularly to hands, feet and brain. In extreme cases unconsciousness and coma can follow, along with heart failure. Workers in these conditions, such as seamen, oil-rig workers, building workers and power cable workers are more subject to rheumatism, bronchitis, arthritis and heart diseases.
Radiation. Radiation is a more common hazard than is often supposed. It is not just those who are engaged at nuclear power stations and in advanced war armaments production, who are in danger from radiation. Continuous exposure to high power radio waves for example, or the newly developed microwaves for heating and communications, are all potentially cancer-or tumour-inducing sources of radiation. Electro-magnetic radiation, and Infra-red radiation sources are common in some industries, as are ultra-violet radiation sources. Health workers, dentists and of course patients are all exposed to X ray emissions, but not as continuously as workers in industries which regularly use X rays and Gamma rays for inspection or other productive uses. All radiation sources can cause skin damage, internal organ problems and tumours.
Metals. Even after the extremely dangerous molten stage of manufacture, metals remain sources of danger to those workers employed in their transport or further production. Badly designed stacking methods and lifting procedures increase the dangers. The sheer weight of metals in bulk can permanently crush or maim fingers, limbs and even bodies where safety procedures and equipment are inadequate. And in many capitalist firms they are inadequate. The danger does not just apply to those metals which are commonly known to be dangerous such as lead which can cause poisoning, zinc which can also explode under certain conditions, or magnesium which can set on fire and produce toxic fumes.
Metal turning, welding and riveting even with common metals, create dangerous particles and fumes, all of which workers inhale. These substances can cause permanent damage to the lungs and respiratory system. The cutting oils that are used with metals also release fumes which can cause cancers and skin diseases such as dermatitis. Jagged edges of metals that have been cut or drilled can cause also permanent and unsightly scars, dangerous infections, and even amputated limbs.
Chemicals. There are literally thousands upon thousands of hazardous chemicals used in industry, manufacturing and commerce, so this small section cannot list even a small selection of them and still have enough space to note some of their effects on the human body. We shall have to content ourselves with noting that they come in three basic forms; solids, including powders, liquids and gases all of which can be poisonous, corrosive, explosive or cancer inducing (carcinogenic). Powders can burn the skin, get in the mouth, lungs and stomach; liquids, can also burn and permeate the skin and give off fumes which damage lungs and the respiratory system.
Not all gasses can be seen and not all give off a smell. Since they readily mix with air, danger can be present without anyone knowing. The lungs and air passages of working people are in the front line of the attack from gasses that have escaped and this is well before any explosion can take place. Even an apparently safe and comfortable office building or banking building can often be a sinkhole of volatile organic pollutants from paints, varnishes, plastics and statically charged particles. Some people are more immediately sensitive to such contaminants, but all are effected in the long term.
This short list presents only the tip of an iceberg of hazards which daily face the working class as they enter the capitalist factories, mines, offices, shops and farms. Theoretically in the advanced capitalist countries, there are laws to place limits as to how much danger the workers can be placed in. But these are not universal. There are also, in most of the industrialised countries, factory inspectors who are employed to police the safety at work. But as every worker knows these inspectors are understaffed and can only make few visits. These visits are also programmed in advance so the senior management ensure the workplace is cleaned up the day before the inspector arrives, and any dodgy practices are suspended until the visit is over.
To add to this problem of detection, the inspectors are usually from the same background as the managers/owners and so there is more often than not a cosy social bond. Where this exists it ensures that even blatantly dangerous practices, where spotted, are only ‘noted’ over a friendly coffee in the boardroom. This undoubted social bond rests upon the basic economic class interests shared between the owners and managers of capital, the state inspectors who are supposed to monitor the workplace and the judges who enforce the law. It is a bond that can all but neutralise the effect of any legislation.
Aircraft are routinely sent up into the skies with known problems and defects. Ships and Ferries are frequently sent out to sea in known un-seaworthy conditions. Many lives are lost in the process and many more put at risk because of the cynical pursuit of profit before all else. In the case of Nuclear energy, where this deadly and obnoxious form of industry is partly or wholly, privatised, as in Japan, then the situation can (and has) become even more dangerous. In some cases cheap, untrained labour from groups of unemployed and homeless are employed to clean out the most hazardous parts of nuclear power plants. This is just another way in which profits are maximised at the expense of safety for the employees and the large number of communities who live within ‘fall-out’ range – and that means all of us!
Under the capitalist mode of production, such practices can only occur by collusion (turning a blind eye) between capitalist management, pro-capitalist government inspectors and pro-capitalist justices departments. It is a collusion, which as noted before, is engendered by the fact that material conditions of all three social groups are directly dependent upon the amount of surplus value left over after all other expenses of production are deducted. As a general rule the more surplus value that is set aside for safe production, the less there is for profits and government taxes.
Real safety and the removal of hazards by methods – which are scientifically known and technically available – would reduce investor profits and government income for highly paid civil servants and politicians. This leaves the consumers (and the communities adjacent to such hazards) subject to a yearly lottery of ill-health, death and injury. It leaves the workers to continue to endure the temperatures, noise, vibration, radiation and absorb the gasses, fumes, liquids and dusts. Nor does it stop at the factory gate. What the employees don’t take into their bodies gets pumped or dumped into the surrounding environment for the rest of us to breath in and absorb.
Unfortunately, more tragedies such as that at the mine in Soma, Turkey will occur as long as the capitalist mode of production continues. Indeed, disasters and misfortunes will undoubtedly increase as the current crisis continues to unfold. The only answers in the repertoires of the ruling capitalist elites and their pro-capitalist supporters is for more production and cheaper means of producing. The investments needs of capital – even in the present five-fold crisis – is to increase production and increase exploitation for the worlds working class. These needs will take precedence over health and safety for working people and their communities, until production is taken out of their hands and placed back in the hands of the producers. Until then representatives of this class will continue to tell us ‘these things happen all the time‘.
Roy Ratcliffe ( May 2014.)