It’s tempting to invoke Pope Francis as a sort of political trump card for whatever position one might hold. He is, after all, the figurehead that so many people in the U.S. and around the world turn to for moral guidance. The problem is that those with the power to stir debate often focus on his most headline-grabbing statements. In doing so, we lose the opportunity to discuss the issues that rarely make the front page.
Take worker safety, for instance. It’s a matter that pretty much everyone can get on board with – at least on the surface. It’s a good sound bite for politicians, and all U.S. citizens want to know that they and their loved ones are working in a safe environment. Even the pope has weighed in on the matter, stating in his 2013 Easter address: “I address a strong appeal from my heart that the dignity and safety of the worker always be protected.” You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the essence of that statement, presidential candidates in particular.
Talk Is Cheap
As far as the U.S. is concerned, however, workplace safety is another one of those thorny issues where people state one thing and do the opposite. Asbestos contamination is a constant problem in the U.S., resulting in more than 9,000 deaths each year due to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, and yet many large corporations seem uninterested in doing anything about it. Worst of all, it’s our nation’s most hardworking laborers who face the greatest dangers.
For roughly 1.3 Million American workers in the construction and building maintenance industry alone, asbestos contamination remains an ongoing health hazard, according to a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Still, there is no general ban on the manufacturing of asbestos-containing products, and there are currently no legislative efforts to pare down its use or significantly clean up waste disposal sites across the U.S. The most significant step taken in recent years was Washington state’s ban on hazardous materials in automotive brakes, which will only phase out asbestos in vehicle brakes starting this year.
Piecemeal legislation does little to protect workers from this harmful, naturally occurring substance. So it begs the question: Why is U.S. industry so averse to the idea of protecting workers from asbestos in the first place? The answer may lie in mere corporate greed – an unwillingness to phase out a known carcinogen if it means a reduced bottom line. Sixty nations worldwide have outright banned the use of asbestos for any purpose – knowing the danger it poses to workers and citizens – so workers’ safety when it comes to asbestos isn’t an insurmountable goal. And besides, doesn’t such a sentiment align more with the pope’s message?
An Ongoing Crisis
Lobbyists who contest the outright ban of asbestos tend to point to job site safety protocols as the only real defense against asbestos contamination. Some of that may be true, but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is swamped with alleged violations for asbestos exposure—and the news headlines even more so.
- Welfare workers in Niagara County, New York, were likely exposed to asbestos while cleaning a crawl space in a government building.
- Cable splicers in Nashville, Tennessee, sued a local utility after being exposed to asbestos from fireproof conductor wraps.
- An Illinois Construction Company was fined $2 million for potentially exposing Mexican migrant workers to asbestos.
- Federal investigators confirmed that a VA Hospital in Texas failed to protect maintenance workers from unsafe levels of asbestos.
- Workers at UC Davis came forth with allegations that the university knowingly approved maintenance work that exposed students to asbestos on campus.
Clearly, this is a problem in need of a solution. Despite the pope’s resounding message about the dignity of labor and the importance of work safety, there remains little interest among many employers, legislators, and lobbyists to follow that Golden Rule: do unto others as they would to you.