Workplace Hazards in the Tech Economy

April 26th, 2018 by Phil Mattera

The titans of the tech economy want us to believe that among their achievements is the transformation of the workplace into a more humane and nurturing environment. This accounts for the frequent stories about headquarters campuses with endless amenities and flexible work arrangements.

It’s often another story when you look beyond those glittering complexes to the more mundane sites where the routine work is done. The manufacturing, distribution and customer service facilities that prop up the tech companies have a lot in common, in a bad way, with their old economy counterparts.

The latest indication of that reality comes in the 2018 edition of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s Dirty Dozen list of employers that put workers and communities most at risk. The council is a federation of local COSH groups that for nearly 50 years have been promoting safer workplace practices.

This year’s Dirty Dozen includes two new-economy corporations that work hard to portray themselves as enlightened: Amazon.com and Tesla Motors.

Amazon makes the list because of a series of fatal workplace accidents at its warehouses over the past five years. The report points out that the facilities create hazards by demanding that workers maintain a dangerously intense pace of work in order to service the company’s rapid delivery system. One Amazon center in Pennsylvania became infamous for having paramedics stationed outside full-time to deal with the frequent cases of dehydration and heat stress.

Violation Tracker’s summary page for Amazon lists 17 OSHA fines totaling $208,675 – but most of those come from its Whole Foods subsidiary. Amazon’s distribution and fulfillment centers don’t have more entries because many of their workers are technically employees of temp agencies and leasing firms.

Tesla makes the Dirty Dozen list because National COSH found that its injury rate was 31 percent higher than the rest of the automotive industry and its rate of serious injuries was 83 percent higher. The report cites a series of articles about the safety problems at Tesla, including a Los Angeles Times story stating that Tesla had an accident rate greater than notoriously unsafe industries such as sawmills and slaughterhouses, despite being much more automated.

Tesla’s reported accident rate may actually be understated. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal project found that Tesla failed to include some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports.

Among the reasons Amazon and Tesla have been able to get away with their unsafe practices is the absence of unions in their U.S. facilities. Both companies have succeeded, so far, in beating back labor organizing campaigns by employing the argument that workers at a supposedly enlightened company do not need a third party to represent them.

The truth, of course, is that unions are not really third parties but instead an expression of the desire of workers to present a united front in dealing with management. When it comes to employers such as Amazon and Tesla, that collective action may be the only way to ensure that workers can get through the day in one piece.

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