A San Leandro, CA, scrap yard assigns workers to cut up radiators and batteries with acetylene torches, producing such severe lead exposures that their children show up on the state’s childhood lead poisoning registry because of “take-home” exposure from their fathers’ work clothes.

A Fremont, CA, semiconductor plant exposes its workers to levels of airborne arsenic, a known human carcinogen, four times the regulatory limit and does nothing to reduce the exposures despite two years of internal industrial hygiene monitoring documenting the overexposures.

A Livermore, CA, pipeline company assigns workers to go into 8- to 10-foot trenches that have no shoring or other cave-in protections, and are repeatedly cited for years following deaths and disabling injuries throughout the state.

Every month our office runs across employers who knowingly and repeatedly put their employees in harm’s way, often resulting in serious injury, illness and death. Many of these employers have been previously cited for precisely those hazards, and/or they have conducted their own monitoring, inspections and accident investigations that clearly identify the risks and the predictable results.

The employers we inspect are not a random sample that can be analyzed as statistically representative of all employees in the state. Among employers we do inspect:

  • About 15 percent have a genuine commitment to employee safety and are in substantial compliance with the law;

  • About 10 percent consciously violate the regulations; and,

  • 75 percent are somewhere in between, with some employers’ performance nearer the “good actors” and others’ conduct closer to the “bad actors.”

    The bad actors’ usual justifications for violations of the law is that effective health and safety programs and practices are “too time consuming,” or cause employers to lose economic incentives for faster production, or are “just too expensive.”

    But even under financial pressure, how can an employer deliberately put a worker in an unshored, 10-foot trench, or poison their children by refusing to build showers and locker rooms for lead-exposed workers?

    A disposable workforce

    After 11 years on the job, I can see only one logical explanation for this behavior: these employers simply do not view their workers as human beings. They do not consider the workers, or their children, their wives, or their parents, as human beings with the same feelings, hopes or dreams as themselves.

    It is racism and class bias that allows these employers to see workers as disposable.

    Almost all the workers I have encountered working for bad actor employers are recent immigrants from the four corners of the globe. These non-white, non-English-speaking, sometimes non-Christian immigrants do not qualify for the same conditions that these employers would expect for themselves. For these employers, I guess, workers who do not look like them, or speak their language, or have the same customs and holidays, simply are not worthy of equal protection.

    Class bias — the disdain of the higher class employers for lower class workers — also plays a part. The Fremont semiconductor’s workforce in the example above was primarily newly immigrated farmers from rural China, while the owners were Chinese Americans of Taiwanese ancestry. The pipeline company, owned by white Americans, employed working class whites as well as Mexican and Central American immigrants.

    Changing behavior

    So how to protect workers from bad actor employers who consistently fail to comply with the regulations and work practices that more responsible employers respect?

    I think most bad actor employers will never change their view of their employees as disposable. But there are two policies that would set some parameters and, perhaps, begin to change bad actor employer behaviors:

    1) Immigrant workers must be informed of their rights to a safe and healthful workplace under the law; and must have the confidence that the government is seriously committed to enforcing these rights. Cal/OSHA, to its great credit, issued a clear policy in 2002 stating that all workers in California, regardless of immigration status, are protected by California law, and that state agencies will enforce these laws for each and every worker in the state.

    2) Employers who repeatedly and willfully ignore health and safety regulations, and cause serious injury and death to their workers, must go to jail. These actions should be criminally prosecuted as felonies and must have the same serious penalties as other acts that result in injury and death.

    No doubt there will be employers who will remain unmoved even by threats to their personal liberty, but I think most bad actor employers would change, if only for their own benefit, how they treat the health and safety of the men and women in their employ.