This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is a 1959 safety video featuring Donald Duck that my colleague Jason Foster ran across while revising IDRL 308. The video subscribes to the careless worker myth: essentially that worker inattention and irresponsibility are the main cause of workplace injury. Apologies in advance for the sexism and racism in the six-minute film.
Donald’s behaviour is clearly ridiculous and the movie ignores the insanely unsafe conditions in the factory he works in! It isn’t clear to me who funded this cartoon or who the intended audience was (all I could find was that it was a theatrical short). You can see more modern version of this theme in this 2008 Alberta video from the Bloody Lucky series.
An interesting question is why is the myth of the careless worker so persistent (it dates back about 100 years)? As I note in my book The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, American companies used the careless worker myth in the 1920s to counter opposition to the introduction of leaded gasoline. Lead poisoning among workers making the tetraethyl lead additive made people leery of leaded gasoline. General Motors, DuPoint and Standard Oil responded to critics, in part, by blaming injuries on workers not following safety precautions.
In this case, carelessness was not root cause of worker injuries and death—exposing workers to a toxin at work was. Indeed, analysis of injury causation suggests unsafe conditions, not carelessness, are the cause of most accidents. Injury mechanisms are well known to employers, as are many ways to prevent injuries. The problem is that eliminating or containing hazards is expensive. It is cheaper and much easier to blame the victim
Focusing attention on the victim protects cherished beliefs or powerful actors. We do this all the time. Victims of sexual assault were (and are) often blamed for their injury. Blaming rape victims is easier than grappling with seemingly intractable issues like the objectification and victimization of women by social and legal forces. Similarly, it is easier to blame workers than grapple with the idea that injuries are the byproduct of employer decisions.
-- Bob Barnetson