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Industrial accidents – then and now

An Associated Press notice on July 24 recalled the sinking of an excursion boat at a dock in Chicago that day in 1915 in which 844 people were drowned.
The SS Eastland had been chartered by the Western Electric Co. to take several thousand of its employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana.
Apart from “the ship [becoming] unbalanced as passengers gathered to watch other boats,” rolling over and trapping the victims, the report gave no details on causes of the disaster.
An article by Carl Sandburg in September that year is instructive in that regard. The renowned author and (later) biographer of Abraham Lincoln was a journalist in Chicago at the time. His coverage of the “coffin boat” event, illustrative of governments’ sometime failure to protect their citizens, remains pertinent.
The steamship’s drowning, trapping women and children “like rats in a cellar,” Sandburg wrote, was “the ghastliest commentary on American efficiency so far written into national history.”
The forerunner of today’s economic productivity concept, he noted William C. Redford, the Secretary of Commerce, to be an ardent promoter and widely quoted “authority on efficiency.”
He had been preaching its profit potential for American manufacturers because, in the Secretary’s words, it allowed “American makers of goods for sale to squeeze four times as much labor energy from the workmen as the makers of competing nations.”
The Department of Commerce being responsible for steamboat inspections, “warning after warning” about safety failures had been ignored under the Secretary.
Through leaking hatches, for one, “water [can] pour and sink a boat,” Sandburg notes, and various inspectors’ orders to have fasteners placed on the hatches had been neglected by the companies.
Frustrated, one inspector “writes Washington” and goes there but is told “to forget about the hatches.” A “mysterious influence” against them from the top office eventually so discouraged inspectors “all down the line” as to no longer report safety failures.
In just one month in 1913, 34 vessels with 240 seamen and deck hands were lost.
He reports a further, bitter irony about the Eastland case. The picnic outing was to be part of a “good advertising” campaign for the Bell phone company and its Western Electric subsidiary.
In white hats and white shoes, they were “expected” to wear and had to pay for “out of their slim pay envelopes,” the employees would be in a parade of which “pictures were to be made.” Additionally, they had no choice but to go on the excursion, it being “part of their jobs.”
The “mysterious” force from the top examined by Sandburg in reporting on this accident persists today. To cite only one example from our time, how could mine-safety agencies ignore hundreds of inspection violation reports against the Massey Energy Co., until 29 workers lost their lives at one of its (Upper Big Branch) coal mines, in West Virginia, in 2010?
We should rethink a regulatory system under which money and corporate profit often are valued more than the welfare of human beings and the environment.