Industrial Disasters Are Not Accidents


Industrial Disasters Are Not Accidents

from The People, June 4, 1988, page 6

Private ownership and control of the means of production demonstrates over and over again what a menace it is to workers, their families and to society in general. Take, for example, one of the industrial "accidents" that were sensational enough to make it to the front pages and prime time of the nation's profit-motivated media last month.

On May 4, a rocket fuel plant exploded in Henderson, Nev., just outside Las Vegas. The disaster took the lives of two and injured 322.

To the workers at the plant, the tragedy was no real surprise. They were aware that the plant had no sprinkler system to put out fires. Clear for all to see was the major natural gas pipeline that ran within a dozen feet of the plant's batch house where highly explosive and extremely unstable ammonium perchlorate rocket fuel was produced.

Workers were also aware that building inspectors had found exposed live wires and explosive levels of hydrogen gas, as well as corroded walls and equipment, in the plant. In short, workers knew the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. A 1982 report warned that the union "cannot understand how this plant has not been blown off the face of the Earth."

On May 4, that was exactly what happened - not just to the plant, but to the marshmallow factory next door and much of the surrounding industrial park which was shortsightedly built up around the plant. Doors were blown off their hinges, windows shattered and structural damage sustained by homes and other buildings in nearby neighborhoods which were also short-sight-edly developed around the plant.

The only thing that prevented much greater loss of life was the quick exit of workers from the plant once they learned of an uncontrolled fire in the batch house. Workers in the rest of the industrial park received no warning of a threat until they saw smoke and flames.

No emergency plan had ever been effected by the bosses of any enterprise in the park. And when fire trucks arrived at the scene there was no water available from the park's hydrants, which operated only with electricity - power had failed as the disaster unfolded.

Clearly, capitalism stands many times condemned for all the profit-motivated shortcuts it took in Henderson. And it condemns itself further by the nature of the product for which it exploited workers and recklessly endangered the lives of everyone in Henderson -- rocket fuel for almost exclusively antisocial, military purposes.

Capitalism could be similarly condemned by the lax procedures and reckless, profit-motivated production that gave us the huge Shell Oil spill in late April in Martinez, Calif. Likewise, again on May 4, could it be condemned by the "towering inferno" it produced - once again for lack of a sprinkler system -in a Los Angeles skyscraper, killing one and injuring 40.

Likewise with the explosion the next day of an oil refinery in Norco, La., which killed at least six and injured 42 others. Likewise by any number of less publicized examples of capitalism's calculated neglect of safety.


These disasters, on the whole, big or little, cannot rightly be called "accidents." The Manufacturing Chemists Association estimated a few years ago that only about 8 percent of on-the-job "accidents" of any kind are caused by worker error. The rest were the result of unsafe working conditions built into the work process.

Whether such "accidents" cause the death, injury or disease of workers on or off the job, or environmental catastrophe, they stem from an inherently unsafe "work process" -- that of capitalism.

Capitalist production, with its all-consuming drive for profit, has proved unable to halt or even appreciably slow down its ongoing massacre of workers and rape of the environment. Thus anything short of the elimination of the profit motive as the basis of production amounts, to a continuing death sentence for workers, society and the environment.

This is not to say that accidents will never happen in a socialist society or that socialism is synonymous with immediate and complete abandonment of the productive facilities built by workers under capitalism. It is to say, however, that only in a society where the nation's industrial machine is in the collective, democratic control of the producers themselves, the working-class majority, will it be possible to rationally balance human and social needs against human and social risks.

Only in such a society will it be possible to institute the planning that is needed to achieve the safest possible production, with effective measures to protect and rejuvenate the environment.