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Some years ago, a group of union reps were idly discussing what the “worst possible job” in the world might be, and, having once lived in India, I nominated the low-caste Biharis who had the job of hauling the bones and rotted carcasses of dead animals to who-knows-where, on these rickety, foul smelling, oxen-drawn wagons. It was their life’s work, a vocation they were born into.
Then somebody mentioned arsenic mines in the Ukraine. Working inside a mine—with the back-breaking regimen, the danger, the claustrophobia—was hideous enough, but working in one where you mined poison ore seemed almost incomprehensible. Compared to an arsenic mine, a job in a modern toilet paper factory (which the union represented) was a day at the circus.
If one is looking for irrefutable evidence that, over the last forty years or so, the United States has shifted dramatically to the right on the political spectrum, they need look no further than OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), a federal watchdog agency established in 1970. It was created under president Nixon, a Republican.
It’s impossible to imagine such a comprehensive, pro-worker agency being established in the post-Reagan era, even under a Clinton or Obama regime. Clearly, the worm has turned. There are simply too many rabidly pro-business, anti-government Republicans calling the shots, and too few so-called “Democrats” willing to take them on.
But back to toilet paper. According to customer service data, the top three consumer complaints about toilet paper—or bath tissue, as it’s known in the trade—are: not soft enough, not strong enough, and bad perfs (jagged or misaligned sheet perforations).
Unfortunately, sheet softness is inversely proportional to sheet strength; the softer it is, the weaker it is. Think of automobile tires. You can have the extraordinary handling and traction of soft, pliable rubber, or you can have the durability of tires that last for 50,000 miles. But you can’t have both.
Moreover, because softness is the result of roughing up or “plucking” the sheet to give it body, the softer you make it, the more dust you create in the process. And because softness is what attracts consumers, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark (the leading makers of facial and bath tissue) are locked in a competition to make the softest base sheet in the universe. This is where OSHA comes in.
I dealt personally with OSHA on several occasions during my union service. Some visits to the facility were at the AWPPW’s (Assoc. of Pulp and Paper Workers) request, others were mandatory, the result of an industrial accident that required investigation.
Based on my limited experience I would describe the agency as effective. If you gave them something meaningful to work with, they usually came through for you. When they did a “wall-to-wall,” for example, they were stubborn and meticulous. No one could tell them where to look, where not to look, or how carefully to look. A good OSHA rep was, by definition, management’s “loyal opposition.”
Of course, like any other organization or institution, OSHA was no better or worse than the personnel that constituted it. If you were assigned a smart and diligent field officer, he could prove very helpful; if you got a lazy or arrogant one, you were more or less screwed.
The two complaints from people working in a paper manufacturing plant are the heat and the dust. The temperature of the huge, two-story high drum (dryer) over which the 15-foot wide wet sheet travels (at 5,000 feet per minute) is hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit and emits a tremendous amount of ambient heat. There’s no air-conditioning, so the place is an oven in the summertime.
As for workplace temperatures, our union safety coordinator once asked an OSHA rep what the legal “maximum” was. His answer surprised us. “There isn’t any,” he said. Foundries, steel mills, even restaurant kitchens are incredibly hot, and there’s no way they can be expected to regulate their heat and still stay in business. As long as there’s proper ventilation and frequent rest periods, there’s no limit to how hot it can get.
But dust was another matter. When (at the union’s request) OSHA visited the facility to measure the dust levels, we instantly got their attention. In truth, there was no way a field officer could have ignored it even if he wanted to.
The place was Dust City. Not only could you see it in the air—this vast, colloidal snowfall suspended in space—there was a thin layer of paper dust covering virtually every surface: machinery, conduits, platforms, forklifts, lunchboxes, people’s heads and shoulders.
Because OSHA doesn’t have the authority to tell a company how to alter its manufacturing process, (and because paper dust is not classified as a carcinogen) all they could do was respond to the potential pulmonary hazard. Their remedy was to require everyone on the crew to wear respirators during peak dust intervals.
Not surprisingly, the crews were disappointed. Besides being bulky and uncomfortable, these breathing devices were a hassle to put on, remove, and store properly. They had to be stored in a particular place, in a particular manner. It was a major inconvenience.
While the crews had hoped the union would take the initiative and get OSHA to address the dust problem, the last thing anyone wanted or expected was mandatory respirators. The Law of Unintended Consequences had raised its ugly head. You say you want to stop eating dust? Then you gotta wear these contraptions.
Lately, union officials have reported that OSHA, flawed as it was, has taken a dreadful turn for the worse. With the shift in priorities that occurred in the post-Reagan era of corporate hegemony, the agency has continued to regress. It’s gone from watchdog to lapdog.
Just as those eight years under Bush and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao all but crippled the NLRB, the eight years under Bush—along with the previous eight under corporate-lackey Bill Clinton—have done much the same to OSHA.
The agency has neither the funding nor the inclination to be the aggressive, proactive industrial safety honcho it was mandated to be. And don’t think private industry, with its mile-long antennae, doesn’t know it.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com