Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why Do Some Deaths Mean More Than Others?

So some people are probably going to get pissed off about this post.

So it goes.

For obvious reasons, I had a front row view of the media's reaction to the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

Three people, so far, were killed as a result of the blast and, at latest count, 264 people were injured.

It was, without question, horrible and, without question, news.

Two days later, a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, exploded, killing 14 people, injuring 200 and leveling dozens of homes.

Props to Mercury Editor Nancy March for giving, at least the initial reporting on that equally tragic occurrence, similar play on The Mercury's front page.

Would that as many other editors had done so.

On Wednesday, April 24, halfway around the world, 352 workers in a Bangladesh factory building were killed when the eight-story building collapsed around them.

If numbers ruled the world, these latter two events would be much bigger news than the events in Boston.

The lives lost in both these industrial accidents were far and away more than those lost in the bombing in Boston.

The simple truth is, they are not bigger news because of the way they died.

The media, The Mercury included, continues to, and will continue to, cover the details of this admittedly fascinating story in Boston for as long as it sells.

Two brothers, motivated by religious fanaticism, bent on leaving a trail of destruction: To be sure, it's a captivating narrative.

If a TV movie of the week is not already in production, it won't be long before it is.

But what about the deaths in Texas and Bangladesh?

Were those lives less noteworthy?

Will we continue to consume tidbits about the families destroyed by these industrial tragedies with the same morbid enthusiasm and righteous indignation that the Boston tragedy will no doubt continue to capture in our imagination?

I doubt it.

For those of you who don't know, today is Worker's Memorial Day, which, in today's political climate, seems like maybe the only day when this point could be made

You've probably never heard of it. I admit I never had.

According to Wikipedia, Worker's Memorial Day "is an opportunity to highlight the preventable nature of most workplace accidents and ill health and to promote campaigns and union organisation in the fight for improvements in workplace safety."

One phrase in that sentence struck me: "preventable nature of most workplace accidents."

Most workplace accidents are, as it turns out, preventable.

Here in America, we even have an agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, whose entire mission is dedicated to the enterprise of keeping us safe at work.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fatal injury rate for American workers in 2011 — the most recent year for which numbers are available — is 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.

That means 4,693 men, women and teenagers died at work in 2011.

"These deaths were largely preventable," says Tom O'Connor, executive director of National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), an advocacy group formed by organized labor and workers safety advocates, which recently released its own report on workplace fatalities.

"Simply by following proven safety practices and complying with [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards, many of these more than 4,600 deaths could have been avoided."

O'Connor blames companies that "decry regulations and emphasize profits over safety."

So thinking about Worker's Memorial Day, I began to wonder, will the owners of the fertilizer plant in Texas be subjected to the same scorn, hatred and internet derision that is already being heaped on the surviving suspect of the attack in Boston?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Dzhohkar Tsarnaev should be an object of  sympathy, but just think about how many of you recognized that name.

Now, how many of you know the name of the company that owned that fertilizer plant in Texas?

Who are the owners?

Why is a man involved in the death of three people reviled whereas the people who owned a plant that has not had an OSHA inspection since 2006 remain anonymous?

The name of the company is, not surprisingly as it turns out, the West Fertilizer Company.

However, the owners behind that name, remain comfortably unknown and unaccountable to the country at large in a way the Tsarnaev family does not.

This despite the fact that the evidence against those owners is at least as damning as that piling up against Tsarnaev.

"Federal law requires any operation that holds more than a ton of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate to report that stock to the Department of Homeland Security. Proposed new rules would cut that to 25 pounds. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that West Fertilizer doesn't appear to have reported its ammonium nitrate stock to federal officials," according to CNN.

The plant in West had 270 tons; 269 more tons than the amount required to be reported. 

So why, as a nation, are we outraged about the fact that a pair of brothers who killed three people received Welfare, but remain largely ignorant and comparatively unconcerned about the fact that a company that owned a plant that killed 14 people, violated a federal law and allowed the unsafe condition that caused those 14 deaths? 

There are probably several reasons.

Americans, these days anyway, view industrial accidents as "things that happen. It's a shame, but what are you gonna do?"

Oh, I don't know, file charges maybe?

And when those deaths are caused by unsafe conditions, and the people who skimmed more profit for themselves by skimping on safety for those who made that profit possible, we shrug our shoulders. 

After all, it's not like they meant to kill those people, their own workers. They just, you know, allowed it to happen....

Terrorism, by contrast, is people setting out with the intent of causing harm, which is what makes it so effective. Terrorism works because we let it work; because the idea that someone is trying to harm us on purpose is more unsettling than the idea that someone will let us come to harm simply because they don't think we're worth protecting.

The entire city of Boston was shut down while a hunt was undertaken for one man, suspected in the death of three people.

Part of an entire town in Texas was decimated by an explosion in which the suspected cause is the negligence of a company dealing in a dangerous substance and the nation (and news media) yawns.

Hell, we wouldn't shut down a Wal-Mart for that. After all, we already KNOW who the owners are and it's not like they're trying to get away -- or feel like they have to.

Was Texas Gov. (and would be president) Rick Perry outraged at the senseless deaths of those workers, more likely caused by negligence and avarice than by terrorist attack?

Well he expressed sympathy with their families, sure. 

Respect for the first-responders? Absolutely.

But outrage? At the owners? Not that I've heard. Nor do I expect to.

Here is his statement on his web site in which he "honors the victims" of the West explosion.

He hardly mentions the workers killed at all, instead walking safely in the standard limelight of thanking those who risk their lives every day to save others. 

(Unlike the workers at the fertilizer plant who, as it turns out, risked their lives every day to make fertilizer.) 

I challenge you to find any promise in Perry's statement that he will "bring the perpetrators of this tragedy to justice." You'll be looking for a long time.

But when a California newspaper cartoon suggested this tragedy might be the result of the low level of regulation in his state -- something he brags about on the campaign trail -- well, then, suddenly he's outraged!

The cartoon in The Sacramento Bee shows the Texas governor crowing "Business is Booming" and flanked by signs saying, "Low Tax" "Low Regs!" The next panel reads "Boom!" as an explosion engulfs the area behind the governor.

In a letter to the Bee's editor Friday, Perry says he wouldn't stand for "someone mocking this tragedy." He demanded an immediate apology for the newspaper's "detestable attempt at satire," according to CBS News.

Hello? Its you they're mocking governor and the tragedy that some of our leaders think you can gut safety regulations, and other regulations as well, and suffer no consequence.

Of course he cuts the regulations but its the workers who suffer the consequences.

He's SHOCKED to hear someone suggest that more safety regulations might have saved lives. Outrageous!

What does he think regulations are? Why does he think they were enacted in the first place? 

Have our government officials become so detached from the consequences of their actions that they really see every vote as just a chess-piece on the reelection game board?

Congress, through shameless inaction, let the sequester budget cuts unfold and then expressed shock, SHOCK I TELL YOU, that it affected air traffic controllers. 

Who knew such vital employees were also government employees?

"Well, heck, they have a vital job," said a Congress suddenly moved to act when they held their airline tickets for yet another vacation in their sweaty hands. 

"We better fix this," they said as they rushed out of town.

"Turns out, we need those air traffic controllers. I mean it's not like they're OSHA inspectors or anything ... you know, or teachers."

There was a time when such "avoidable accidents" spurred at least as much outrage among the general public as terrorist attacks.

My friend Sherry Kane works hard to remind people of the horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred in 1911 and  saw 146 mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, many women and children, killed when fire broke out in a New York City factory where the doors were locked.

Outrage then was as least as loud as four years later when the a German submarine sank the Lusitania, and the shirtwaist factory fire sparked a movement to improve labor safety whose heritage forms the foundation of OSHA.

But the regulations OSHA attempts to enforce (let's see how THEY fare under the sequester) are now held up as the enemy to progress, not a safety net for workers.

And we in the news media, well we know a story about lax OSHA regulations will generate about as much viewership as re-runs of George W. Bush campaign speeches.
Now, if that factory had been blown up by terrorists on the other hand, well THAT would be something.

Then we would have watched breathlessly as noble law enforcement (public servants all) worked to bring to justice those bastards who killed 14 innocent Americans.

Will we be as eager, I wonder, to follow the story of efforts by the Justice Department (also full of public servants) to bring to justice the owners of that plant who are responsible for the death of 14 innocent Americans?



  1. I agree very important post, I didn't know anything about the Texas company nor barely anything about Bangladesh, but everyone talked about the Boston marathon.

  2. Evan, this an outstanding post. As a chemical engineer that has worked in a variety of industries, including large plants down in Texas, I was absolutely appalled at this situation, as well as how little anyone really cared. I realize industrial accidents aren't considered news anymore, but that's also part of the problem.

    Most industrial accidents are avoidable, and come about due to lack of planning, communication, or just willful negligence. We have numerous OSHA regulations to supposedly keep us safe, but far too little inspection and oversight.

    The reason these rules were developed is because of all these tragic accidents we've had over the years.

    I've spent time in China, where there's a complete lack of all these rules. Some of the processing plants I toured through in China had workers breathing in Ammonia and Hydrogen Flouride fumes. Their skin and hair were bleached white, and they looked aged beyond their years. Waste streams of hydrogen flouride with dissolved heavy metals were being dumped in the river. People were fishing downstream not more than 500 meters away. The air was choked with brown smog most days.

    Yet many of our manufacturing jobs have been relocated to China due to the business friendly environment and our own rules that seem to encourage off-shoring. I suppose a number of our political leaders think it's reasonable to try and compete with China in destroying our population's health and lives by deregulation. I wish they'd spend some time in China seeing what I've seen before preaching deregulation and cutting OSHA funding. I wish they'd also see the impact of their decision making that's led to much of the American manufacturing sector moving to China. It's not been a pretty picture, on either side of the ocean.

    Best regards,

    Don Clancy
    Chemical Engineer

    1. Thanks for the comments Don.
      Couldn't agree more.