Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Occupational hazards? Or environmental hazards?

We often talk about occupational injuries and hazards and focus our attention on occupation-based prevention and remediation. Yet the boundaries between occupational hazards and other hazards (e.g., environmental hazards) are quite blurry and permeable.

Leaded gasoline, for example, has created a massive environmental problem. Lead-contaminated soil remains a hazard to children decades after the last tank of leaded gasoline was burned. But the hazards of leaded gasoline were evident in the 1920s when workers (who are often the first people exposed to hazards) fell sick and died as a result of their exposure.

Other examples are legions. Cigarettes were an “environmental hazard” that were recognized as an occupational hazard only in the last few decades. Asbestos is a “workplace hazard” that has become an environmental hazard as asbestos products are now recognized as causing disease among those who live in proximity to their use.

Most of these examples tend to centre on biological and chemical hazards. Yet even plain-old physical hazards can cross over. The 2009 death of three-year-old Michelle Krsek in Calgary is an interesting example. Krsek was killed by debris that flew off a high-rise worksite during a windstorm. Material falling from a worksite is commonly viewed as an occupational hazard yet, in this case, it clear posed a much wider hazard.

Our current laws are poorly adapted to addressing such cross over issues. In February, the two companies involved in Krsek’s death were each fined $15,000 (the maximum). Had Krsek been a worker, each company could have been liable for a $500,000 fine and those responsible subject to up to six months in jail, (although it is an open question whether the government would have bothered to prosecute).

Non-workers who develop mesothelioma (an asbestos-triggered cancer) cannot seek compensation through workers’ compensation so must sue. But they will most likely be unable to prove when they were exposed, thus they will not be compensated for their death. Nor will the companies responsible for the exposure ever face prosecution. In fact, the government is currently sanctioning the export of asbestos (and its dangers) to the developing world.

One of the implications of the boundary-less nature of hazards is that there exists a (as yet nascent) potential for class-based action against companies that deal in hazardous products and governments that allow it. The potential for meaningful action has been dramatically increased by the greater connectively enabled by the internet—victims can more easily find one another and better coordinate their actions.

This increases the economic risk companies face when they choose to operate in hazardous ways or utilize hazardous materials. And it increases the political risk to governments that limit hazards regulation to “occupational hazards” or constrain compensation to “work-related accidents”.

-- Bob Barnetson

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