Health & Medical Significance

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  • Read the following excerpt from Locked in the Cabinet, a book by former-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich [[Robert B. Reich, LOCKED IN THE CABINET 160-162 (New York: Knopf, 1997)]].

Joe Dear, [then] the assistant secretary for OSHA, whose thankless job is to manage the crossfire between business and labor on the passionate issue of workplace safety, relates the following story.

Last October, Robert Julian, a fifty-three-year-old employee at Bridgestone’s tire plant in Oklahoma City, died when his head was crushed in an assembly machine that was supposed to have been shut off before he tried to reset it.  In January, another employee’s arm was severely mangled and broken in the same factory when he tried to unjam another machine that also was supposed to have been shut off.  A month ago, a third employee was bashed on the head and badly burned by dye that was supposed to have been secured.  And that’s just the last seven months.  Bridgestone’s Oklahoma City factory has had a long history of gruesome deaths and injuries.  The company’s other plants have similar problems.  Last week, a worker’s head was caught in an assembly machine in its Morrison, Tennessee, factory.  Co-workers pulled him out, but not before his face was badly mangled.

OSHA investigators have tried to coax Bridgestone into taking a simple precaution to make sure machines are turned off before employees reset or unjam or clean them—the same precaution that every factory in America is supposed to take.  It’s a lock that cuts the power off, which costs only about six dollars per machine to buy and install.  But Bridgestone’s executives won’t budge.  Joe thinks it’s because they don’t want to give employees the power to shut down the assembly line.  The Rubber Workers local might use it for potential bargaining leverage in upcoming contract negotiations.

“We’re proposing a seven-and-a-half-million-dollar fine, the maximum,” Joe says in a monotone.  I can tell he doesn’t relish this fight.  Bridgestone is a big company, the second-largest tire maker in the world.  It’ll drag the case through the courts for years unless we eventually settle for a fraction of that.  And when we do settle, OSHA will come under heavy criticism for knuckling under.  Worse, the final settlement may not be enough to get Bridgestone to mend its ways: The company may figure it’s cheaper to pay up and continue risking employee’s lives and limbs.  It won’t be the first time a company has made that kind of calculation.

I’m indignant.  “We’ve got to stop this. …”  I can feel righteousness coursing through my veins.

Joe looks skeptical.  “We can’t go any higher with a fine.  We might be able to go to the court in Oklahoma City and get an emergency order forcing them to comply there.  It’s dicey.”

“But workers are getting killed and maimed.  Why not use all our ammunition?”  I’m putting on my holster.  “Let’s also mobilize public opinion.”

“Public opinion?” Joe’s skepticism deepens.

I explain my theory: “Big companies like Bridgestone spend millions on advertising to boost their public image.  If we get this story on television we’ll embarrass the hell out of them and strike fear in the hearts of every other corporation that’s screwing its workers.”  I strike the table with my index finger, trying to imitate Lloyd Bentsen (on a subject distinctly unlikely to bestir Bentsen’s index finger).

Joe hadn’t planned on my fury.  He doesn’t know how to manage it.

“I want to go out there,” I say, simply.  “I’ll deliver the legal papers in person.  We’ll fly out Sunday night and do it Monday morning.  We’ll alert the media so they can be on hand.  Afterward we’ll hold a press conference, maybe with some of the injured workers, even the widows of workers who were killed.”

“Widows?”  Joe is incredulous.  This is no longer a legal matter.  It’s become an issue of morality and public relations.  He warms to the idea.  “I’m sure Mrs. Julian will help us.”

“Joe,” I ask, “is this situation at Bridgestone as outrageous as it seems?”

“Yeah.  It’s bad, chief.”

“Will the employees be with us on this?”

“No question.  You’ll be a hero.”

“Okay, then.  We go to Oklahoma City.”

I imagine myself galloping into town on a large white stallion, a sheriff’s badge pinned to my vest.  Few feelings in public office are more exhilarating than self-righteous indignation—or as dangerous.

  • You represent employer Bridgestone.  Assume that Sec. Reich carried out his threats to levy fines and engage in a public relations campaign against Bridgestone. 
    • What can you do about these measures Sec. Reich has taken?
    • How would you go about appealing any citation?
      • Describe all steps in the quasi-adjudicatory process and any grounds for appeal you can identify.
      • If you lack information that would inform your answer, you may make assumptions so long as you disclose them and indicate how they affected your response.

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