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Inspiration For A Movement: Re-reading "Death On The Job"
Date 08/05/08/15:48

NEW SOLUTIONS, Vol. 16(3) 315-348, 2006


Death on the Job, by Daniel Berman, New York and London: Monthly Review
Press, 1978.
Reviewed by: Michael B. Lax

Death on the Job, written by Daniel Berman in the late 1970s, inspired and
informed the worker-based occupational safety and health movement. With his
contention that corporate control of the workplace is the fundamental cause of
workplace injuries and illnesses he stood apart from more mainstream analysts
who saw safety and health as primarily a technical problem. Death on the Job
detailed the structure and dynamics of a social system producing injured workers,
and advocated for action to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses. While
much has changed since the book was published, a re-reading of the book confirms
its value as a starting point for analysis and action. In these difficult political
times, the occupational safety and health movement would do well to build on Berman's
insights as a basis for rejuvenation and direction.
Daniel M. Berman's book Death On The Job was published in 1978 [1]. I
read the book a few years later and was both informed and inspired. Informed
because Berman provided a history of workplace safety and health in the
United States that squarely placed the issue in the context of the struggle between
capital and labor, and that recognized the fundamental contradiction between
capitalism's need to continuously maximize profits and workers' need for safe
and healthy working conditions. And inspired because Berman described how
workers, unions, and their activist and professional allies came together as a
movement, directly confronting corporate power in an effort to make work safer
and healthier.
Twenty-eight years later seems like an opportune moment to re-assess Ber-
man's book and its relevance. Has it retained its analytical usefulness and its
inspirational power? The common wisdom is that the world, and specifically the
world of work, has changed dramatically since the book was published. From
an American mainstream viewpoint, these changes are usually described as a shift
from a manufacturing to a service/information-based economy domestically
and from national to globalized production internationally. These changes
may be distressing for laid-off manufacturing workers, but over the long term
they will be beneficial for most, as jobs will utilize intellectual skills, resulting in
higher wages and more pleasant working conditions. From a health and safety
standpoint, workplaces will continue to get cleaner and less hazardous and fewer
workers will be injured or made ill by work. The obvious consequence is that
less effort and money will need to be expended on protecting or improving
workplace health.
From a class perspective, the view does not seem nearly as rosy [2]. Maximi-
zation of corporate profit remains the heart of capitalism and the changes
described above are a reflection of that fact, rather than a change in its essence. To
maintain profits, the corporate class has staged an unrelenting assault on labor for
more than twenty-five years. That assault has consisted of reducing the cost of
production by exporting jobs to lower-wage countries, driving down wages and
benefits, increasing productivity through methods such as lean manufacturing, and
reducing the "burden" of government regulation. As a result, more workers face
poverty, job insecurity, and lack of access to services and supports such as health
care. The perspective this casts on workplace health and safety stands in stark
contrast to the mainstream view. As the power of the working class declines,
working conditions deteriorate. The more pressures to produce and threats of
employers closing up shop increase, the more employers shortchange safety and
health and the less workers are willing or able to resist. For the vast majority of
workers, work has hardly become more pleasant and less hazardous. While the'new'
economy exports some traditional hazards to the less developed capitalist
periphery, it can also intensify hazards, as well as create new hazards for workers
in the capitalist core. In addition, under these circumstances the perennial problem
of under recognition of occupational injuries and illnesses becomes heightened as
the barriers preventing recognition are strengthened.
The inspiration I took from Berman's book came from the belief that corporate
power had been and could be confronted and that change that made jobs safer and
healthier was possible. Re-reading the book from the present vantage point, I was
struck that he actually had captured a moment in time when the occupational
health and safety movement had reached its high point and was facing a decline
together with the labor movement generally. That makes his analysis all the more
impressive since he recognized these trends and predicted some of their
implications. In these gloomier times, his work remains a key reference in framing
and assessing the changes that have occurred since its publication and as a starting
point for a discussion of what a new occupational health and safety movement
could look like.

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