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The puzzle of industry and society

September 5, 2010

If you are a regular reader of The Pump Handle, you’re familiar with industry hazards from a policy perspective.  But of all places I happened on a good article in Parade Magazine this morning.  It’s a reminder that when we buy products, turn on the lights, drive down roads or do almost anything, there are people who make it happen by showing up every day and doing something that could kill them:

A former supervisor, Toby Workman, walked me through its musty mazes. He talked; I took notes. At every station, he described the job—and the danger. It was like listening to a foreign language: skip cars, pulverizers, fly ash, coal crackers.

“We were working with a continuous controlled explosive: pulverized coal,” he said. “We’re the men the public doesn’t see. We’re in the hole in the dark, and most people don’t know we exist.”

Soon Toby started responding before I could ask: “Yes,” he said, handing me a 12-pound wrench, “your dad used this… Yes, he came to this window to check out tools… Yes, your dad stood right here and sweated until his clothes dripped.”
Parade Magazine, 5sep10, The place my father didn’t want me to see

The killing isn’t always an industrial accident; often it’s a fatal erosion of the body, chipping away at health over years, so that children miss their parents far too early.  But often they suffer in silence; when people step into the voting booth, people who never knew their stories, all that is forgotten and what remains are political slogans about “red tape” and “jobs”.

When you see rhetoric about “job-killing regulations”, don’t be fooled by the stock photos of handsome men and women in neatly pressed blue work shirts and hard hats; they are not the source of the expensive advertisement.  You can be sure the real source is an advertising agency, and they are charging a lot of money to people who will lose profits if they are required to provide a safe workplace.  Often, it isn’t even about the icing on their corporate cake we’re talking about, but the thickness of the icing, or whether there are sprinkles. 

Thing is, people will buy electricity, for example, regardless if it costs a little more or a little less.  And the difference is often very little.  When the company says a regulation will cost them “$20 million dollars” it sounds like a lot, but it might be thirty cents on your electric bill so “the men the public doesn’t see” can have adequate ventilation or the forests don’t die in acid rain. 

Letting workers die soon after retirement is a good deal for companies that have raided their workers’ pensions, and it externalizes the costs of their illnesses to the commons – as does sloppy environmental protection.  So you wind up paying that thirty cents many times over, because of the difference between an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure.

The unwritten lesson in the Parade piece is that no industrial process happens without people who know how to do it, and risk-averse financiers who backed the facilities where it’s done.  And they tend to lobby and advertise in favor of the status quo.  I often hear; “Why don’t we just switch to wind power?” and I wholeheartedly agree, along with solar and wave and nuclear and other low-carbon power sources.  But “switch” is the wrong word, one used to minimize the process of change.  It’s as if they haven’t a clue as to the scale of industry, or its inter-dependencies, or of cultural inertia.  I honestly don’t know if we can change fast enough to beat peak oil, or global warming, sea life depletion or the population bomb.  It’s rather a socio-cultural puzzle as much as a technological one.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 6, 2010 at 22:03 | #1

    Its an excellent point the article makes. It is odd to me, with all the accidents the mining industry and coal industry have that people would think less regulation would make sense. WTF people?

    On our way out to North Carolina this summer we drove through Virginia and had to look at the billboards saying we don’t need more regulations on the coal industry, just to protect jobs. Morons.

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