Safety in Perspective

FACT:  Dangerous jobs.  Here is a report on fatality rates in 1) different industries (e.g. fishing, construction, logging, recycling) and 2) different activities (driving a forklift for a hospital is more dangerous than printing payroll for a fishery or recycling plant).  Refuse and recycling jobs are dangerous, but not because of "toxicity".  Working around heavy moving objects is dangerous, and if it's a field far away from medical help - fishing, farming and logging - the distance makes a moderate accident more likely to be fatal.  

Distance from medical care and treatment is also the issue in Africa, Asia and South America - if someone gets injured in Guiyu China, it is the health care in the city that will determine the outcome.  That is the challenge for mayors in the cities which import for recycling and refurbishment - income to their community is not all about greed, it's about setting up hospitals and water treatment.  That's why it's called the developing world.

++ The following 10 occupations had the highest fatality rates in 2008 (USA):

1.  Fishers and related fishing workers  Fatality rate: 128.9
2.  Logging workers  Fatality rate: 115.7
3.  Aircraft pilots and flight engineers  Fatality rate: 72.4
4.  Structural iron and steel workers  Fatality rate: 46.4
5.  Farmers and ranchers  Fatality rate: 39.5
6.  Refuse and recyclable material collectors  Fatality rate: 36.8
7.  Roofers  Fatality rate: 34.4
8.  Electrical power line installers & repairers Fatality rate: 29.8
9.  Driver/sales workers and truck drivers  Fatality rate: 22.8
10. Taxi drivers and chauffeurs  Fatality rate: 19.3

The best response to risks and dangers in the workplace is transparency and documentation.  OSHA doesn't want us to cover up accidents. At the opposite extreme is obfuscation or information pollution - providing so much information that the effect is confusion and uncertainty, or a state of cognitive dissonance.  Record keeping is always good if the records are searchable by the people who can make use of the information.  Providing dental records to a dentist is good. Providing dental records to your accountant... not so much.

Dying from toxics exposure doesn't make the list.  There are legitimate concerns about pollution from metal and plastic recycling and repair and refurbishment, but if you work in a recycling plant, like I do, you learn to respect moving forklifts carrying 2000 pound bales more than the "ju-ju" of brominated flame retardants (simultaneously mandated to be put into plastics, and mandated to be taken out of plastics, in the USA).

What concerns people in Africa and the developing world is not the "witches brew" of lurking chemicals in a computer, but the reality of finding a doctor, finding health care, and finding healthy food.  This is the disconnect with the "no export" approach. The importing society needs jobs and an economic base to create hospitals... no country succeeded by starting with hospitals and brought the jobs afterwards.  Making recycling, repair and refurbishing healthy and sustainable in Africa is a win-win.  Eliminating the jobs will not create TV repair jobs in the USA, and will not improve the lives of workers in the developing world.  This is not an excuse for pollution, or a suggestion we shouldn't care about it.  Fair Trade is about reforming the practice without killing the patient.

Today, in the New York Times, there is an article about worker expectations in one of the very cities in China I visited in 2006 (picture above). There is still a factory there making TVs from the CRT monitors (like the ones shown in the Hong Kong segment of the infamous 60 Minutes Wasteland segment).  The article describes how the employees in Zhongshan and Zhuai are demanding better salaries, air conditioning, better working conditions.  This is the reality.  This is how China will grow out of Guiyu, with business and fair trade bringing money and sustainability, not with e-waste boycotts and alarmist racial stereotyping.
"Although the walkouts were quelled with higher salaries, factory owners and labor experts said that the strikes have driven home a looming reality that had been predicted by demographers: the supply of workers 16 to 24 years old has peaked and will drop by a third in the next 12 years, thanks to stringent family-planning policies that have sharply reduced China’s population growth."
First comes nutrition, then comes living standards, then comes health care, then comes environmental cleanup.  Fair trade recycling engages and compliments the growth.  R2 (Responsible Recyclers) is the standard developed in a consensus process by EPA.   R2 allows you to sit down with the factory in Zhongshan and play an active role - "As a supplier, I want to see your workers safe and comfortable, and if you need to pay us less for the material we are exporting, we can agree to that because you help us meet the R2 standard".  We bring the OSHA standards above to the developing country, through ISO9000, and environmental standards there via ISO14001.  

You cannot sit down and negotiate these with the Chinese factory if you are an E-steward; it doesn't matter if they are 9000 or 14001.  As an E-Steward, you only sell "tested working" product directly to the same people the factory sells to.  As an E-Steward, you are not a partner, you are a competitor.

What do recyclers do about competitors?  Well, in my experience, recyclers have a general tendency to bad-mouth one another.  Like the CEO of one of my competitors called my old boss in Massachusetts "China Dick", implying that there was something wrong with Dick Peloquin because, as his VP, I made the trip to the factory in Zhuhai.  The CEO had, and has, a zero-reuse, zero intact unit policy.  He did an incredibly good job recycling bad CRT glass, which is why my truck driver was delivering the bad units, which we had learned to remove following my visit to China, to his destruction facility.  And look at me, writing about that in a blog, I'm doing the same thing.  Oh, the humanity!  As I've written before, all the CRTs that recycler ever saw were bad, and he probably assumed all the ones Dick got were bad.  Two good people.

There's another CEO of another E-Steward recycling company who has been writing in support of the BAN E-Steward approach.  His "Perception/Reality" web page, with the sub-line "Where does your e-waste really go?", is fascinating.   I ran across his material on my visit to Asia in 2006, and spoke at length to the Chinese buyer who was repairing it.  It was being unloaded here in a sea container in Jahor Bahru, and the repairs were done in a marble-floor office building.  I only know that I am proud of the operation in JB, and I speak of it openly, and I would urge anyone not to be ashamed of it.  If other recyclers had told BAN they used these markets, BAN may have taken a closer look at Basel Convention Annex IX, and we might not have two standards today.

By being transparent, we can appear clever.  By being opaque, we can appear "too clever".  I guess this is all about finding the balance between obfuscation and integrity.  Change is constant.  When I write, I like to think that the philosophy has a longer shelf life than the facts and policy.

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