Jonathan Karmel’s “Dying to Work”

“There are no accidents.” That’s a main theme of Jonathan D. Karmel’s Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace (2017). Karmel, a Chicago-based labor lawyer, talked about his book at a Thursday event organized by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and hosted by the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

Karmel was referring to his observation that most serious workplace injuries and fatalities are not the result of “accidents,” assuming we define them as random, chance events. Rather, they’re the result of negligent or deliberate actions that undermine worker safety and health.

Dying to Work contains plenty of basic facts and statistics about work-related injuries and deaths, as well as a thorough history of workplace safety and health legislation in the United States. The heart of the book, however, is a series of stories of workers and how they were seriously injured or died on the job. 

Paul King

At Thursday’s event in Boston, Karmel focused on the story of Paul King, a husband and father of three children who lived in Massachusetts. Paul had worked in the printing industry for many years until his company closed its doors, a casualty of the digital revolution. He eventually enrolled in a technical school, and in 2005, he was hired by a contractor, MainTech, that did maintenance work at Logan International Airport.

Some two months after starting his new job with MainTech, Paul was sent to the roof of a Logan terminal to work on some wiring. A co-worker on the ground made repeated attempts to call him, with no response. Minutes later, Paul was found on the ground with burns on his hands, face, and shoulder. Efforts to save him failed. It was later determined that he was electrocuted after coming in contact with a live electrical box. After a subsequent investigation, MainTech was cited for eight “serious” violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, covering a failure to provide training and safety equipment, and fined all of $54,000.

Melissa King, Paul’s daughter and now a MassCOSH activist, also spoke at the program and was joined by members of the King family. The pain of losing Paul remains very palpable, yet they have channeled their grief into advocacy for stronger workplace safety protections.

More stories

Dying to Work is filled with these accounts, for Karmel smartly understood that a book filled mostly with dry facts and figures would not convey the human impacts of these injuries and losses. In the midst of a busy law practice, he traveled around the country to talk to injured workers and surviving family members in many different occupations, including store clerks, hotel housekeepers, miners, nurses, grain handlers, and others.

In rendering his assessment, Karmel ultimately concluded that “all of these deaths and injuries were preventable,” and he urges us to understand that these stories are “a tip of the proverbial iceberg” in terms of the deadly hazards that workers face across the country. He hopes that Dying to Work will contribute to a dialogue about how to prevent these deadly events from occurring, and I believe he is succeeding at that.

 

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”

Disconnects

Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

Linking workplace bullying to workplace violence

Last week’s news included a San Francisco workplace shooting allegedly committed by a man who believed he was a target of bullying. As reported by Tara Moriarty of KTVU and the Associated Press:

The UPS worker who opened fire at the company’s San Francisco warehouse yesterday, killing three co-workers before turning the gun on himself believe[d] he was being bullied by two of those employees, sources told KTVU Thursday.

Jimmy Lam, an 18-year veteran of UPS, appeared to single out three slain drivers during the shooting rampage although police have not yet publicly disclosed a motive in the case. San Francisco police declined to comment about their investigation on Thursday.

***

Friends and colleagues recounted several personal and professional troubles that Lam had been experiencing.

Most recently, he was upset with UPS managers and had filed a grievance in March claiming he was working excessive overtime, said Joseph Cilia, Lam’s friend and an official with the union that represents UPS drivers.

In his 1995 book Violence at Work, Joseph A. Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, observed that workplace violence can be a consequence of bullying at work. Kinney noted that “there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression.” According to the news report cited above, none of the San Francisco UPS victims were managers, so this scenario is slightly different than what Kinney described back in 1995. However, it is the latest instance of a tragic workplace shooting tied to allegations that the shooter had been bullied at work.

Of course, there’s a difference between someone claiming to be bullied and someone being found to have been bullied under some objective, factual standard. Also, in no way am I attempting to justify deadly violence as a fair response to a lesser form of mistreatment. In addition, a murder-suicide scenario such as the one in San Francisco suggests that we need to look much deeper into underlying circumstances before we offer a confident interpretation of what happened.

Nevertheless, there’s enough anecdotal evidence for us to say that being bullied at work may, in turn, trigger violent behavior by the victim towards the aggressors. After all, abuse can become cyclical and escalate. Stopping and reversing these cycles of abuse, hopefully with compassion and understanding, must be among our core objectives in confronting mistreatment at work.

Work, Stress and Health 2017 (Hello from Minneapolis!)

The biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP) is a continuing education highlight for me and an opportunity to share some of my work with colleagues from around the world. It also serves as ongoing proof that a large conference can be enjoyable and friendly, thanks to the great people organizing it and the wonderful folks it attracts.

The 2017 conference began today in Minneapolis with an afternoon opening session, and here are some of the highlights:

  • An opening panel on temporary jobs and the gig economy featured two excellent presentations: David Desario, founder of the Alliance for the Temporary Workforce discussed the elevated workplace health & safety risks faced by temp workers. He’ll be screening “A Day’s Work,” his documentary film about these (sometimes deadly) hazards, at the conference on Thursday afternoon. Journalist Sarah Kessler (Quartz), author of a forthcoming book about the gig economy, sketched out the nature of this small but growing sector, summing up the gig worker’s plight as “risk without the potential rewards of entrepreneurship.”
  • Among the award recipients was Dr. Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois U.), whose cutting-edge research and commentary on work-life issues has been discussed previously on this blog (e.g., here and here). Lacie, as she is known to her friends, was recognized for her early career accomplishments, a richly deserved honor. Dr. Julian Barling (Queen’s U., Canada), one of the earliest researchers on workplace mistreatment (among his many research topics), received an equally well-deserved lifetime achievement award.

I’ll be part of two panels at this year’s conference: One is on “Trauma-Informed Best Practices for Responding to Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” a panel I organized with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I included my panel paper in my last post. A second is on “Non-Standard Work Arrangements: A Discussion of Taxonomy and Research Priorities,” building on themes raised in the opening program on temp jobs and the gig economy. I was invited by NIOSH to discuss some of the legal aspects of this topic, including the oft-discussed distinctions between employee and independent contractor status.

Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

Are we preaching wellness to wave off a closer look at core societal problems?

 

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Journalist Laurie Penny, in a terrific piece for the punchy journal The Baffler, takes aim at the messaging of self-care and wellness from Powers That Be that may obscure a closer look at deeper societal problems:

The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.

She posits that this “wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” one that renders us believing that we can improve our lives only on an individual level. Thus, we are conditioned to assume “that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted,” the problem is one not of our economic system, but rather of personal fault:

The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

Such a belief system may foreclose us “from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.”

Individual vs. social change

To her credit, Penny does not dismiss the benefits of self-care and healthy living choices, confessing “that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent.” But, at the very least, she’s asserting that the pendulum has swung away too far from societal perspectives on, and collective solutions to, conditions that stoke suffering, injustice, and deprivation.

Bingo. Especially here in the States, the wellness stuff may be a softer, gentler version of old fashioned American rugged individualism, embracing the myth that you make it or miss it on your own. Don’t get me wrong, being accountable to ourselves is a good thing. But all the personal responsibility in the world doesn’t make up for a stacked deck and abuses of power.

If we want to make the world a better place, we have to work on ourselves and our institutions and our communities, yes?

Applied to the workplace

This imbalanced focus on the individual captures why I have a problem with many workplace wellness programs. Standing in isolation, wellness programs are fine things. However, it is wholly ironic that these programs can pop up in workplaces that unnecessarily generate the very stressors and unhealthy living habits these programs are designed to address. Treating workers with dignity — including (at the very least) a living wage, fair employment practices, and a decent work environment — is the best employer-sponsored wellness program of all!

Of course, the individual vs. social change dichotomy can manifest itself in more dire workplace situations as well. For example, too many complaints about workplace bullying are dismissed as personality conflicts, and all too often the target of the mistreatment is blamed for somehow not adequately managing the situation.

This dismissive attitude ignores that workplace bullying has strong individual, organizational, and societal components. Of course, on an individual level, it involves perpetrators and targets, and those interpersonal dynamics can be complex. That said, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in the absence of an organizational culture that enables or even encourages it. On a broader societal level, abusive behaviors at work can be fueled by an absence of legal protections and the presence of a popular culture that accepts them as normal.

We need a reframe

So, folks, we need a reframe, one that looks at human problems at both the individual and societal levels, with responses and solutions shaped accordingly. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where we see individual change vs. social change as a false dichotomy, replaced by an understanding that we need both in order to create better lives, workplaces, and communities.

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