Working at a frenzied pace out of a modest Loop office, Joseph Kinney relentlessly links facts with faces. The facts document America’s preventable carnage from unsafe workplaces. The faces are reminders that behind each statistic is an individual.
Here are some of Kinney’s facts:
Here are some of Kinney’s faces:
Daryl’s father, Glenn Damman, persevered with his demand for a full investigation and found allies in Joseph Kinney and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. Finally, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conducted its own inquiry last year. Even though it had become impossible to draw conclusions about air quality at the time of Daryl’s death, NIOSH did describe the work site as a “confined space,” suggesting the possibility of air quality dangers.
In 1975 OSHA began research on defining rules for work in confined spaces. Although standards were finally proposed in late 1989, they have still not been officially promulgated, 16 years and many hundreds of deaths after the rule-making process began.
Although the company was fined and Doig convicted on criminal charges of aiding and abetting willful violations of federal safety laws, the U.S. Appeals Court recently ruled that as an employee, Doig was not criminally liable.
One particular face made Joseph Kinney painfully aware of the facts of industrial danger–the face of his younger brother, Paul. On July 5, 1986, 26-year-old Paul Kinney was three weeks away from graduating as an electrical engineer from Wichita State University. He was rigging electrical wires for an Independence Day fireworks display, standing on scaffolding put together for the contractor by some inexperienced high school kids. As Paul worked, the scaffolding suddenly gave way. He fell 30 feet, seriously injuring his neck.
Joseph Kinney, who at that time worked as a livestock consultant and agribusiness investment banker, arrived at the hospital with his parents. As a Marine in Vietnam, where he’d been seriously injured 17 years earlier, Joe was a hero to his younger brother. Entering the Denver hospital, Joe flashed back to Vietnam: “I was in my Marine Corps noncommissioned officer mode,” he says, “asking, ‘Who did what? Who was responsible for what?'”
After talking to a friend who was a brain surgeon, Kinney concluded that his younger brother had no chance of recovery. He cooperated with the doctors to maximize the “salvage” of his brother’s organs to donate for transplants, then kept watch until two days later his brother died.
The next day Kinney discovered from fire department paramedics that the scaffolding was improperly constructed. He visited the local agency that had hired the fireworks contractor and announced that he would sit down on their desk and wait until he got every document connected with the fireworks contract. After three hours, Kinney got his files.
“I just wanted to see what kind of battle planning these people did,” he explains. “A thoughtful person would say, ‘This is dangerous business; what precautions should we take?’ I found there was a lot of attention to public safety but no interest in the safety of the workers involved in the show itself.”
Kinney, a heavyset man with a booming voice and intense presence, was off on a new reconnaissance mission in a strange civilian battleground. He talked to everyone he could corner: the Denver district attorney, union officials, health and safety experts, and OSHA. He was astounded at every turn by how little anyone valued the dead worker or his family. For instance, Paul’s death benefit from the contractor’s insurance was $3,200; his funeral cost $7,700. Then, after a long investigation in which Joseph Kinney and his family could play no role, OSHA cited the contractor for a serious safety violation, ordered the citation posted, and fined the company $800. The company never posted the citation, workers told Kinney, and paid the fine only several months later, further delaying release of records to the family, who could not receive them until the case was closed.
“I was interested in some social justice,” Kinney said recently. “It seemed like a reckless homicide. The more I went on, the madder I would get. I just saw lots of inertia and paralysis.” When he walked out of the Washington, D.C., office of the undersecretary of labor for OSHA, after a thoroughly unsatisfying meeting, Kinney turned and said spontaneously that he figured he would be spending about 30 hours a week on the issue of workplace safety for the next ten years.
Now, after five years of working more like 60 hours a week, Kinney says he’s at the halfway mark. Despite advice from health and safety experts that he would never succeed, he single-handedly launched the National Safe Workplace Institute out of his apartment in Uptown. In the institute’s first report, Kinney documented a scandalously high incidence of death in the construction of Chicago’s deep tunnel–its massive wastewater diversion project. He buttonholed trader Richard Dennis, the liberal philanthropist and futures multimillionaire, during a reception at the Newberry Library and gave him a copy of his report. Within days Dennis sent off a check for $15,000. The National Safe Workplace Institute was on its way.
“I made certain rules when I started,” Kinney says. “I would never accept an appointment in the federal government, and I would only do this for ten years. After that time was up, I’d have nothing to do with OSHA or labor issues. It’s like prison. I want to do my ten, fully and intensely and completely, and quit. I’ve had the double whammy. I had the loss of a dearly beloved brother and loss of all those Marines. The ghosts are there, and I don’t want to let them down. But it will kill me if I keep it up longer.”
Kinney’s work has made a difference. “He’s been the most relentless watchdog of OSHA in the country,” said Ralph Nader. Greg Watchman, counsel to the Senate Labor Committee, said Kinney’s produced “excellent work . . . that gets the public’s attention in a forceful and compelling way.”
Nader thinks Kinney would be more effective if he moved to Washington, but Kinney likes Chicago–“it’s just big, ugly, and nasty”–which he first saw after Vietnam as a recuperating sergeant in the Navy Hospital at Great Lakes. Besides, he thinks he is “infinitely more productive” here. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I couldn’t do this [work] with any integrity in Washington.”
Kinney earned his anti-Washington sentiments the hard way: he worked there for several years, and before that he suffered in Vietnam from ill-conceived strategies concocted there. After graduating from high school in Wichita, where he was born in 1949, he decided to enter the military, against the wishes of his parents (his father was a teacher, his mother a medical secretary). He chose the Marines, figuring that as long as he was enlisting it might as well be in the most gung-ho branch of all.
Soon after he arrived in Vietnam he began to entertain doubts about the war’s purported ends. “The first time I saw a tank in Vietnam, it was doing target practice on a Buddhist shrine,” he says. “We were guests of all these people our drill instructors called ‘gooks.’ We’d go to some ‘friendly’ village, and we might hand out C-rations. Two weeks later we’re back in the same village and it’s a free-fire zone–shoot anything that moves. After a while, that gets kind of confusing.”
Kinney’s encounter with war in Vietnam still shapes his thoughts and acts. “It was the most powerful experience of my life,” he says. “I’ll never learn anything more than what I learned there. You know your behavior is attached to collective survival, and some selfless individual will keep you alive and get himself killed.” He is both proud of his team’s military actions and scornful of the whole war. He is both attracted to its emotional intensity and haunted by the death it wrought. He became obsessed with the My Lai massacre, not only because he thought the chief perpetrator, Lieutenant William Calley, should be strung up for his crimes, but also because the massacre was “devastating to the honor and integrity of good people who served in Vietnam.” Personally, he wanted nothing more than to get out; he was stunned–so stunned that the thought of it still brings tears to his eyes–that a black friend of his would actually return to Vietnam after his tour was up because there was more home and family for him in the Marines there than there was back in Detroit.
Vietnam still provides the metaphors for Kinney’s work. In Vietnam he found it “awesome” that so many people were sacrificed for confused and misguided policy. “The parallels with the workplace today are there,” he insists. “I hate to think about it: people are expendable.” As Kinney turned against the war, “I immediately made a decision I’d be involved in public policy because I’d seen how politics and public policy had this impact on me–and a decision that I would never get involved with the military.”
Seriously wounded in the chest and leg in an ambush, Kinney slowly recuperated, then headed off to college at Illinois State University in Normal and later to graduate school (and two master’s degrees) at Syracuse University and the University of Pennsylvania. After briefly working for the Government Accounting Office, Kinney got a job as an agricultural policy analyst with Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1974. He worked for another senator after Humphrey died, then put in a stint at the National Governors Association. In 1984 Kinney abandoned Capitol Hill for agribusiness consulting. If it hadn’t been for the collapse of that scaffolding in Denver, Kinney figures he’d now be a millionaire. As it is, since 1986 he’s poured much of his personal savings and all of his time into his institute.
Over those years, Kinney has not simply compiled his records of workplace death, injury, and illness but tried to show that this human damage is avoidable. Comparable industrial nations have much better records. For example, although several hundred construction workers in the United States die each year from scaffold-related injuries, scaffold deaths are virtually unheard of in Japan. For every ten million hours worked, slightly more than one U.S. worker is killed on the job; that’s 1.3 times the rate in Germany, 3.5 times the rate in Japan, and nearly six times the rate in Sweden (which has many high-risk industries, such as forestry, mining, and manufacturing).
Such statistics–as well as the progress that was made during the first decade after OSHA was created in 1970–demonstrate that the “incidents,” as Kinney calls them, of occupational injury, disease, and death are not “accidents,” that is, the result of fate or bad luck. Kinney insists that virtually all of them are avoidable. The problem, he says, is not reckless workers; worker errors or misconduct (like the use of alcohol or other drugs on the job) may contribute to accidents, but management has a responsibility to train and monitor workers and to design work and workplaces that minimize risk. In a safe workplace, precautions are taken so that errors are not fatal.
But this costs too much, managers rejoin. Yet as the recently resigned head of OSHA, former Johnson & Johnson safety director Gerard Scannell, tried to tell business leaders, safety measures often pay for themselves in lower costs and higher productivity. After all, the industrial countries with the tightest regulations, strongest and most safety-conscious unions, and lowest rates of occupational injury and disease not only are competitive in the world market but often whip their less regulated, less safe American counterparts.
Indeed, Kinney calculates–combining estimates from different academic sources–that workplace injury and disease probably create a more-than-$200-billion-a-year burden on the U.S. economy in the form of workmen’s compensation, medical treatments, lost productivity, and other consequences–although individual businesses may shift much of this burden to workers’ families and taxpayers. After Jesse Colson died, Domino’s paid the family $4,000–but the funeral alone cost $6,100. “It is cheap,” Kinney says angrily, “far too cheap, to kill a kid in this country.”
But such calculations–whether they show safety costs or pays–are dangerous diversions, Kinney argues. “Safety is not good business,” he says. “It’s expensive business. My point is we all have to understand and reach a consensus that the cost is irrelevant. If we’re allowed to argue over cost, people will escape to Mexico or say we’ll take a chance and pay our little fines.”
It is not simply when compared with other countries that the United States record on workplace safety and health looks bad to Joseph Kinney. In 1970 the federal government took its first major steps toward safeguarding the workplace (the Occupational Safety and Health Act) and the environment (the Clean Air Act and establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency). With Earth Day 1970, the contemporary environmental movement took off, attempting to protect both wildlife and humans from the menaces of modern industry. But there has been no comparable movement concerned with protecting workers from the much more deadly environments inside factories and offices. That’s doubly tragic, for protecting workers adequately by changing the ways things are made would ultimately do more preemptively to safeguard the environment outside the workplace than the complex of emissions regulations now in place.
The dramatic double standard in government regulation and enforcement of environmental standards inside and outside the workplace led Kinney to propose his “two lung” theory. Kinney brandishes a table comparing EPA and OSHA air standards: the acceptable level for lead at work is 33 times higher than the level legally allowed in the general environment; for carbon monoxide it’s four times higher, for particulates (dust) 100 times higher, and for sulfur dioxide it’s 62.5 times higher.
“This should be a source of shame for every ‘Green’ in the United States,” Kinney thunders. “It’s my ‘two lung’ chart that shows the inherent racism of the U.S. government. I didn’t know this, but there are two sets of lungs in the U.S.–one for factory workers, one for everyone else. We’ve got the equivalent of ‘nigger workers’–factory workers–and the rest of us. It’s the equivalent of regulatory slavery.”
The workplace gets short shrift on enforcement as well. The federal government spends 60 times more money on environmental protection than on worker safety protection. While more than 125 individuals have been sentenced under federal environmental laws to more than 1,000 collective years in jail, over the same two decades only two employers were successfully prosecuted under federal job safety laws for a total of 45 days in jail.
Over the past decade the federal government further shortchanged the safety of people at work. Kinney calculated in one National Safe Workplace Institute report, Beyond Neglect, that inflation-adjusted spending on workplace health declined by 16 percent from 1981 to 1991 (and the number of OSHA work site inspectors dropped by 30 percent). During the same period, even under two unsympathetic presidents, environmental protection expenditures grew in real terms. In 1981 the federal government spent 7.1 times as much money on the EPA as on all workplace health agencies; by 1991 it spent 11.4 times as much on the environment as on the workplace. Kinney’s point is not that too much is spent on the environment but that far too little is spent protecting workers. Again putting the issue in international perspective, he reports that Finland and Sweden spend more than $12 per worker on job health. The United States, in 1990, spent 63 cents per worker.
Why does this country pay so little heed to the safety and health of workers? Kinney offers several explanations. First, “there’s a massive culture of denial in this country. People think, ‘Mean and ugly things never will happen to me, or if they do I’ll forget about it as soon as possible.’ With big hurts we either get drunk or forget it or the church tells us it was God’s will. Well, let’s give God a break on this one. Was my brother killed by lightning? Most of this [death, injury, and illness] is as predictable as hell.”
As a corollary to this culture of denial, says Kinney, “there are all these hidden costs–mainly productivity costs–that people don’t want to confront. There’s this tendency for [business executives] to hide and pay later–and if they can politically control it, they won’t have to pay as much. Also, we have a public policy that externalizes or hides the true costs [of workplace dangers].”
More importantly, those in power feel no responsibility for the consequences of their acts. “We have a corporate culture, a business culture, that removes decision makers from any kind of responsibility,” Kinney says. “Japanese managers in Japan take responsibility for their employees. If you took the Fortune 500 chief executive officers, I suspect in the last 20 years not one has attended the funeral of a dead worker, let alone extended condolences to the spouse or family of a dead worker.” The National Safe Workplace Institute found in a survey of business schools that there was virtually no instruction in occupational safety and health, and some of the rare business-ethics instructors on loan from philosophy departments didn’t even know what OSHA was.
Kinney reaches back to Vietnam again for a point of reference. “The lack of responsibility we see on a daily basis [in corporate America] would not be tolerated for two minutes in the Marine Corps,” he argues. “The Marines would have half of corporate America in jail now. I knew Marine officers who took shortcuts and men were killed. Their careers were cut short or they were punished.” Although some business executives may act responsibly, without strong public policy and a committed business culture they operate on an uneven playing field, put at a disadvantage by less scrupulous competitors in fields where safety doesn’t pay but costs.
For example, Nucor Steel, based in North Carolina, is a relatively new steel company that has prospered using electric furnaces and scrap metal for its “mini-mills,” while many of the big basic steel companies have floundered. It’s been extolled in the business press and by Wall Street stock analysts. But Kinney found that Nucor’s profitable strategy came with a price: a death rate double the rest of the industry’s.
Kinney got on Nucor’s trail after a lawyer in Texas sent him information about a Nucor worker who had been electrocuted on the job and whose body had been left where it fell until the crew completed the shift’s work. “When I first read this stuff, I was outraged,” Kinney says. “It seemed like stuff out of Dickens. I had this perspective from the Marines, who always evacuate the most critically wounded first. Who knew this worker was dead?” Kinney researched Nucor’s record, then fed the material to the Wall Street Journal (which used his information for a front-page story without mentioning him or the National Safe Workplace Institute).
The takeover craze of the 80s exacerbated occupational safety problems. To finance the debt loaded on them by leveraged takeovers (or their defenses against takeovers), companies slashed their work forces and increased the pressure on remaining employees. In many cases, the staffs responsible for worker health and safety were among the first to go. Managers often shortchanged maintenance and safety, relied more heavily on inexperienced contract help, and pressured workers to boost production at all costs. Beyond the flagrant consequences of such corner cutting, notably a 1989 explosion at a Phillips Petroleum chemical plant in Pasadena, Texas, that killed 23 workers, the corporate reshuffling increased stress on both white- and blue-collar workers. And stress can sicken–even kill–workers.
These new pressures helped to reverse a downward trend in workplace injuries and illness enjoyed during the first decade after OSHA was created. Now the rates of injury and illness are on the rise, despite the economy’s shift in the past decade away from manufacturing to services. In Kinney’s eyes, Michael Milken, Drexel Burnham Lambert’s former junk bond/takeover finance king, shouldn’t have been tried for securities fraud “but for being an accomplice to murder.”
Kinney has been one of the principal advocates of increased criminal sanctions against managers who kill and maim through malice or neglect. When they can hide behind a corporate shell and avoid responsibility, he says, it is easy for them to treat workers as mere factors of production and calculate that paying the often minimal fines may be cheaper than making their workplaces safe. “We’ve got expendable and vulnerable populations who are intuitively exploitable,” Kinney says, the most vulnerable being young men, especially blacks, Hispanics, and new immigrants.
In addition to both a general culture and a specific corporate culture that deny responsibility, there is a further cause of America’s rotten record on workplace health and safety. Most workers are relatively powerless to protect themselves.
What, ultimately, Kinney was asked, is the reason for the disparity between the safety records of the United States and other industrialized countries? “I think it has to do with unionization,” Kinney concluded. “I was raised to despise unions growing up in Kansas, in the Marines, in the universities. But everything I know from talking to families of victims and looking at the situation in different countries and industries tells me that nonunion people are much worse off than union people.” In Sweden, close to 90 percent of the work force is unionized; in the United States only 16 percent of workers belong to unions.
Last September a fire in a chicken-processing plant in the small town of Hamlet, North Carolina, killed 25 people, in large part because the employer, Imperial Food Products, had locked the fire exit doors. Although the scale of death was unusually large, the situation was not unusual. The plant had such a poor safety record that it was assigned to the mandatory risk pool, since no company willingly would insure it. Yet OSHA, which in North Carolina is a state-run office that Kinney had been attacking as inadequate for several years, had not inspected the plant. Given the number of OSHA inspectors, there might have been no inspection for decades.
“Would things have been different if the United Food and Commercial Workers had organized Imperial?” Kinney asks. “We can’t know. But of those 25 people who died, the vast majority had to know there were things terribly wrong, but they felt powerless as individuals or collectively to do anything. Hamlet, more than anything else, was an example of people not being empowered in any way.” It’s not enough to enlighten corporate leaders, since “the values of leaders may be different from the people at risk,” Kinney says. Ultimately, workers must have the knowledge and power to act individually and collectively, while being protected from harassment or firing for doing so.
Most of today’s employee whistle-blowers to OSHA are either in the process of being fired or are fired soon afterward, and very few get their jobs back. With that record, the general assault on workers and unions over the past decade, and a clearly unsympathetic federal government, it is tragic but understandable that the number of complaints to OSHA dropped from about 60,000 in 1983 to 20,000 in 1990, even as workplaces grew more dangerous.
Despite Kinney’s sympathies for unions as workers’ best guardians, he thinks most union leaders are hopelessly out of touch with their members and that unions devote far too few resources to workplace safety. Yet he celebrates a handful of safety directors of major unions as “pure, selfless, incredibly inspirational people” who make an enormous difference.
When Kinney started the National Safe Workplace Institute, some unionists suspected he was a self-indulgent businessman off on a strange kick. Now he’s attacked by conservatives as a tool of the unions. Yet he’s gotten little money from unions, although some union staff people are on the institute’s board of directors. Most of the institute’s $210,000 budget for 1990-91 came from foundations, including the Chicago-based Joyce and J. Roderick MacArthur foundations.
With what amounts to a shoestring budget, Kinney has tackled a wide array of issues. There is a logic to what he has undertaken, but it is a stream-of-consciousness logic, like the tumble of ideas, anecdotes, and amazing facts that spills out as Kinney talks about his grand passion, one new thought inspiring another tangentially related. For example, his criticism of Indiana’s state-run OSHA plan made him known among reporters, who referred the distraught mother of Jesse Colson to him. That led to his ongoing campaign against Domino’s. Working on Colson’s case then led Kinney to tackle the risks working teens face, which is now leading to a projected mass-education campaign on workers’ rights for teenagers.
Here’s a sample of what Kinney and the National Safe Workplace Institute have done over the past five years.
“We had a scab at our heel, and he picked away at that scab,” recalls MWRD’s general superintendent, Frank Dalton. “He certainly raised our consciousness and generally the construction industry’s about safety. We kept feeling we were doing the best we could; and assuming the attitude as owner, we were looking at the end product, a sewer, as our mission. Joe said as human beings you should have a mission to make sure workers are safe. We said, ‘How could we do it?’ and he gave us a list of ways. I came out of a generation that said if you want to build a highway from A to B, go from A to B. But there’s a whole new array of dimensions that have come into play over the last 30 years. There is the public; there are workers out there, not just steel and cement.”
After years of fighting back efforts to weaken the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Congress is now considering measures to strengthen it, by allowing, among other things, criminal prosecution not only when there are deaths but also in cases of serious bodily injury. “The push by the institute has made a substantial contribution in making a broad consensus that we need to increase penalties,” said Senate counsel Greg Watchman. Last year potential fines were increased tenfold by the first amendment to the original bill ever enacted.
There are several points Kinney makes about the wide variations among states. First, they’re not fair. Second, they encourage employers to pit one state against another, thus reducing protection and compensation generally. Third, not even the best states are doing what they should.
Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Jay Magnuson credits the institute with being one of the few advocates of greater criminal prosecution. AFL-CIO occupational health specialist Peg Seminario calls Kinney crucial in bringing attention to victims’ rights. Since Kinney is independent of the usual labor, business, and academic players on the workplace-safety issue, argue Greg Watchman and Ross Eisenbray, who’s counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee, he adds a new voice that the press takes seriously.
Increasingly, Kinney has been able to recruit occupational health professionals to serve on his board. But as an angry, impetuous agitator who believes in “constructive confrontation,” Kinney collides with all structures around him.
“Joe really burst on the occupational health scene like a tornado,” said Howard Frumkin, director of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health at Emory University and a director of the institute. “He’s very creative, asking different questions, conceptualizing things differently than people who have been in the field.” On the other hand, Frumkin admits, “Joe doesn’t play ball all the time. He doesn’t feel constrained by the need to build alliances. He’s offended people on every side of the fence.”
Kinney ruffled the feathers of many of his allies–including board members–when he filed a brief on the side of the employer in an important U.S. Supreme Court case last year. The United Auto Workers claimed that a Johnson Controls factory in Milwaukee discriminated against women workers by excluding them from areas with high lead exposure. The union, which maintained that the reproductive health of men as well as women was endangered by lead, wanted to defend the rights of all workers to all jobs. It also hoped to force employers to clean up their plants rather than cope with dangers by restricting some workers and exposing others.
Kinney says that he thought “we ought to be regulating for health” and that the issue was protecting workers’ health, not discrimination. Now he grudgingly says that his labor allies who fought him on Johnson Controls are “probably right, and I’m probably wrong. But am I apprehensive about what’s going to happen? You bet.” Kinney doubts that a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled for the UAW against the company will lead many employers to clean up their act.
Kinney’s monomaniacal noncom style has driven many on his small staff crazy. He says he doesn’t like managing, and some of his employees have hated the way he manages. Former employees, insisting on anonymity, have charged him with intimidating and overworking employees, verbally abusing them, not paying unemployment insurance or workmen’s compensation insurance, failing to perform work promised in foundation-grant proposals, exaggerating claims about his influence, and being obsessed with two things: publicity and writing new grant proposals.
Kinney responds that an auditor is now going over the institute’s books at his request and that his relations with foundations remain solid. Under state law, Kinney maintains, he was not required either to pay unemployment compensation (although he is now doing so) or to buy workmen’s-comp insurance (although as an employer, the institute is liable for injuries to its employees).
“I’ve had bad encounters with staff and I’m totally responsible for that,” Kinney says. “Abuse, no. Demanding, yes. I am not an easy person to work for. We deal with issues that affect the lives of people: that’s serious business. I’m not interested in running a Brownie troop.”
The institute’s office environment is neither “a monastery” nor a paragon of mental health, he says, adding, “I don’t deal well with fools or mediocrity, and I’ve had some fools and mediocre people.”
David Harrington, a board member and behavioral health care specialist who is also a Vietnam vet and longtime friend, sees some of the staff problems as an inevitable byproduct of Kinney’s passion. Harrington has often, but futilely, tried to get Kinney to slow down for the sake of his health (his extra weight exacerbates his war wounds) and his personal life (Kinney and his wife recently separated).
“Joe’s a complex guy,” Harrington said. “He was very touched by Vietnam. I see in him a lot of the intensity and sense of purpose, the importance of life having a greater meaning, that is the way some Vietnam vets adjusted to their experience. Either you like him or you don’t, you can stand the voltage around him or you can’t. He’s not the sort most people can tolerate a long time, but how else can you create change in middle-class America? It’s intense, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate.”
Chicago attorney Matt Piers, recruited to the board by Kinney, thinks the institute and Kinney “have made a real impact. He’s picked some very intelligent and important issues that weren’t real apparent and were often controversial.” But Kinney and the institute have had trouble adjusting to success. “The institute is going through growing pains with staff turnover,” Piers said. “That’s not made easier by Joe being on a mission from God. He’s on a 24-hour crusade, and he doesn’t tolerate anyone who doesn’t share his sense of mission.”
Piers chairs the board with Stephen Hessl, chairman of the division of occupational medicine at Cook County Hospital. Hessl admits he was a “little nervous” at first about Kinney’s strong personality and “gung-ho” style. He recalled coming into the institute office on a Saturday when Joe was alone there working on his Macintosh computer, Xeroxing, faxing, and carrying on a conversation on the telephone all at once. “It was a one-man band. It was extraordinary,” Hessl said. “He must be a hard guy to work with.” But Kinney won Hessl over. “He’s accomplished in a short time what others have tried to do for years.”
“I’d prefer to go off and do my own stuff,” says Kinney, with his touch of mordant humor. “It would be a kind of personal triumph if I got thrown out of an organization I created.”
Until then, Kinney is spinning off new projects, striking off on new missions. For example, when he read through the trial transcripts of the Chicago Magnet Wire criminal case, he was struck that all of the workers were Hispanic. Soon he’ll release research demonstrating how many small manufacturers that use toxic chemicals are concentrated in urban Hispanic neighborhoods. He’s seeking funding for Latino worker empowerment projects in Chicago and Los Angeles, distributing workplace-safety brochures in Spanish, and proposing investigations of how Hispanic families are affected by hazards at the breadwinner’s workplace.
He’s also working with Mexican and United States experts to establish a new committee on environmental and occupational health. He hopes to draft a set of principles on the environment and workplace health that American companies opening shop in Mexico will agree to follow. The companies also will be asked to contribute to a workers’ training fund. Already the institute has researched health problems in the maquiladora factories (low-wage subassembly plants) just inside the Mexican border.
“I’m very concerned that certain kinds of employers consciously act to exploit workers of color, especially Latinos, because they don’t know the language, the laws, and the workers’-compensation system, and they have low expectations,” Kinney says. If a Mexican free trade agreement is negotiated, he fears many businesses will simply ship their workplace hazards south of the border.
Kinney also continues to be concerned about kids who work, an effect of his work on behalf of Jesse Colson at Domino’s. Many adults undoubtedly think that adolescents who work are staying out of trouble and learning useful lessons for adult life. But, Kinney argues, teens, especially from poor and working-class families, often work too many hours and too late at night. They fall behind in school and often pick less demanding courses, thus cheating their education. They often work dead-end service jobs that teach them little more than the skills of showing up on time and taking orders. (It was just reported that an ongoing national study by the University of Colorado has found that teens who work are more apt to become delinquents than teens who don’t.)
Kinney wants to educate young people about work and to regulate more closely the work they do. He’s asking McDonald’s to print 16 million copies of a brochure the institute would prepare that tells teens about work, and he’s begun lining up several suburban communities to participate in a work-education project.
“I’m prowork,” Kinney says. “I think work can be a positive experience for kids, but it has to be done in a balanced fashion. The prize is what I call workplace literacy–teaching kids about the sociology of work: What does work mean? What are your responsibilities to your employer? What is your employer’s responsibility to you? What are your rights? I believe a lot of young people would be alive today if they’d been empowered to ask the right questions.”
Work permits are now given to adolescents without scrutiny. Kinney wants the Illinois legislature to set an example for the nation. He proposes to raise the cost of permits to employers (with the money financing youth training) and to link work permits to the young workers’ health, academic performance, and rigor of the curriculum, with permits required until a young person graduates from high school or drops out.
But the big legislative push for this year will be in Congress, where there may be a vote on comprehensive reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The proposed law would strengthen criminal penalties and victims’ rights, things Kinney wants. The heart of the bill is a requirement that workers form health and safety committees in all but the smallest workplaces and that management develop with its workers a comprehensive health and safety plan.
Employers see such an independent voice for workers as the beginning of a revolution, and unions have long insisted that workers acting promptly can accomplish far more than the meager crew of federal inspectors arriving belatedly and often with advance notice to employers. But although others see the bill as a dramatic departure (for good or ill, depending on their interests), Kinney thinks it doesn’t go far enough: “I’m appalled at how feeble the reform legislation is.” He thinks the bill scants nonunion workers, doesn’t link workplace health with broader environmental issues, and doesn’t assure that workers will understand the dangers around them (for example, the Material Safety Data Sheets required for certain dangerous chemicals are incomprehensible to most workers and even a third of managers, according to a U.S. Government Accounting Office survey).
“I’d like to see a wider bill that’s more empowering–and makes occupational and environmental health more important,” Kinney says. “The key is in empowerment–building education, informing workers as individuals to work with employers or unions.”
Most people think of manual work like mining, farming, forestry, construction, or manufacturing when the issue of workplace health and safety arises. Those are the most dangerous industries. But white-collar workers face their own distinct dangers, ranging from the much-debated risks of exposure to video display terminals to the clearly documented epidemic of cumulative trauma disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome–the deterioration of strength in arms and wrists from excessively repetitive, identical motions.
Although workers on fragmented, high-speed factory jobs, from meat-packing plants to textile mills, suffer most from cumulative trauma disorders, they have crippled many thousands of computer workers, from data-entry clerks to journalists. Office workers are often plagued by “sick buildings,” newer office buildings that are tightly sealed and trap toxic chemicals from construction and maintenance, or the germs, tobacco smoke, and other effluvia of its human occupants. Kinney is convinced that with an aging work force in offices, lower back pain from poorly designed work areas will become a major issue in the coming decade. Desks, chairs, lighting, and other equipment are still overwhelmingly designed with little attention to ergonomics–that is, to ways to reduce strains on the body.
“When Germans and Scandinavians come to this country, there are two things they constantly talk about,” Kinney says. “They’re shocked at the kids working. Second, they’re shocked at how unergonomic our furniture is. American furniture manufacturers are doing the same thing as GM and Ford: they favor form over function.” Kinney wants the National Safe Workplace Institute to play a bigger role in white-collar job safety. However, its newsletter, The Healthy Office, has only a minuscule paid mailing list.
The institute has been helping the Chicago Police Department evaluate its programs to handle stress, which takes its toll not only on police (Chicago’s finest have one of the highest absenteeism rates in the country, and stress may contribute to Chicago cops’ notorious weight problems) but also on the citizenry (although Kinney claims Chicago ranks relatively low among big cities in brutality).
Stress is a major issue that cuts across traditional occupational divisions: institute board member David Harrington says that recent surveys found three-fifths of all workers saying that the worst thing about their jobs was stress caused by their supervisors. Reducing this stress will be tougher than combating many other workplace hazards because a campaign against it strikes at the heart of the relationships between bosses and workers.
Yet those relations pervade every workplace health and safety issue. Consider the issue of drug abuse at work. Employers like to focus on such problems because they suggest that the employees, not the work environment or production systems, are at fault. And they have a solution: fire whoever flunks the test. Adding to this punitive approach, at least 19 state governments now reduce workmen’s-compensation coverage if an injured employee is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There is a growing trend toward dragnet-style random drug testing, despite its invasion of employees’ privacy and presumption of guilt. Kinney raises further objections to the employers’ obsession with drug testing.
“The right question is not getting asked,” he insists. “The question is the mental health of workers: are there impaired workers who endanger themselves and others?” Asking this question–and not whether an often inaccurate test detects traces of an intoxicant having once been in a worker’s body–requires focusing on a wide range of potential “impairments,” including stress and fatigue. “Let’s deal with the problem,” Kinney says. “Make no mistake: there’s no room for drugs or alcohol in the workplace. But about ten years ago the United States Air Force discovered there are all sorts of ways people can be impaired.” The Air Force developed sophisticated tests to identify these problems. But trying to resolve them often involves paying more money, and also more attention to individual workers, than employers want to pay.
Much as Kinney sometimes seems like a progressive Rambo of occupational health, he reluctantly realizes that the success of his mission requires involving more people, establishing a more secure base of support and funding, and creating a structure that transcends him. This year he hopes to launch a new organization, People for Safe Work, that he hopes will accomplish for workplace safety and health what Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done for sober drivers. He hopes the leaders will be victims and their families, whose zeal and charisma will touch off a grass-roots movement he will simply advise.
Already Kinney’s contacts suggest the possibilities in such a movement. Told by friends and neighbors to forget his crusade, instead to seek counseling to help put his son’s death behind him, Glenn Damman found compassion and understanding from Joseph Kinney and from the families of other victims of workplace accidents. They helped him cope with his pain and encouraged him to continue his fight. If President Bush can threaten military force to bring suspected bombers of the Pam Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, to justice, Damman thinks he is justified in seeking accountability for his son’s death. Also, he’s fighting for expanded rights of victims’ families in OSHA investigations. After his son Daryl’s death, “Nobody talked to me,” he said. “Nobody spoke on Daryl’s behalf.”
Kinney keeps speaking on behalf of the Daryl Dammans of the world in every forum he can manage. His latest, most unexpected project is a novel. “The title is No Man’s Land,” Kinney says. “The theory is that the laws of this country come from property and wealth. As long as we have this concept of property and the logic that flows from that, we’re going to have people killed like the poultry workers in North Carolina. I’m for private property, I want you to understand, but we need a greater sense of responsibility in the way we enforce the laws.”
The novel is a fictionalized autobiography: a government policy bureaucrat turned crusading reformer for the dignity of people at work. It is also therapy, started last summer when he felt like he was physically falling apart and the pressure of both job and deteriorating family life were getting to him.
“It’s a visualization of my sense of justice,” he says. “I could not write this as a true story for a lot of reasons. I’m not done with my work, but I need to talk now. Of course, the good guys win. I decided it had to have a happy ending. That’s the way I want things to be.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.