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Safety and Sustainability Lacked a Voice at Fukushima

Why worker health and safety is good for sustainability and the environment.

Originally posted on the CSRwire website.

By CSRwire Talkback Managing Editor Francesca Rheannon

It happened on March 24, 2011. The radioactive water poured over the workers’ boots and burned their feet and ankles as they struggled to lay new power cables at reactor No. 3 at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant. The estimate is that they were exposed to 330 times the amount of radiation allowable in a year. And although they were released several days later, they face a lifetime of higher risk of cancer, cataracts and bone disease. They are in their 20s and 30s, so they have a long time to worry.

Two Japanese workers joined 15 others at the doomed plant who have been injured so far due to exposure to high radiation levels (not including those who will get cancers later, which could reach as many as 50%). They and their fellows at the plant are regarded as heroes – which they are – but few stop to question whether the risks they are taking are higher than they should have been.

They aren’t regular TEPCO employees; like many of the workers currently battling to get the reactor under control, they are poorly paid day workers, working for subcontractors. The question that leaped immediately to my mind when I read the report of the accident was, "how in God’s name did water get into their boots?"

I used to train workers on health and safety during hazardous operations (the OSHA-mandated Hazwoper trainings) at The New England Consortium (TNEC), including some basic information on nuclear safety. Workers in hazmat suits - the big white Tyvek suits that have become a common site on news reports about the Japan nuke disaster - are supposed to have their boots sealed to the suit so no contaminants can get in. It’s a no-brainer.

But those workers had neither the proper boots nor the waterproof hazmat suits, TEPCO admitted - and putting on boots wasn’t even required by the company’s safety manual. They weren’t given dosimeters. Neither is it likely they got the Japanese equivalent of Hazwoper training - indications are the training they received was perfunctory, at best. Nor were they warned the water was radioactive, even though the company knew about the problem several days before the workers were exposed. Evidently the TEPCO safety officers were lax as well. They failed to arrange for radiation levels to be monitored in the area where the workers were operating, “a very big and basic oversight.”

Neither they nor the regular workers at TEPCO were unionized, which might have something to do with the lax health and safety culture at the plant. “It’s important to involve workers themselves,” TNEC’s project director Paul Morse told me. “In a lot of places where we have nuclear facilities in the U.S., we have unionized workers who have had a lot of investment in emergency response training. The people who have been part of these training programs are much better prepared and fought for plant safety protections as part of collective bargaining. It’s crucial to have a workforce that’s had a voice.”

What’s the link between injured workers battling to contain the worsening nuclear disaster in Japan and the hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents as far away as Tokyo who are worrying about the radiation spreading invisibly into their air, water and soil? It’s not that the former are trying to protect the latter, although that is true. It’s that a company that takes worker health and safety as cavalierly as TEPCO does is one that takes the health and safety of the environment just as cavalierly.

In other words: worker health and safety is the first line of defense against environmental catastrophe, whether the catastrophe is sudden or insidiously ongoing. In the case of Fukushima-Daiichi, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster a year ago and upper Big Branch Mine disaster before that (just to mention the most famous accidents in recent history), all the companies involved had been cited for poor worker health and safety records before the disasters. But the same disregard for environmental and worker health can be seen in companies that make the list of the Toxic 100 index, like Bayer and ExxonMobil, for their ongoing contamination of the environment.

Safeguarding worker health and safety isn’t just good for workers and the environment. It’s also good for companies.

First, it improves productivity. A summary of research from New Zealand shows a safer and healthier work environment goes beyond fewer sick days taken or lower workers’ comp costs. It includes more innovation, improved quality of work, a better corporate reputation and improved employee recruitment and retention.

But even more so, a focus on worker health and safety should be something near and dear to the sustainability community. Back when I was training workers, one of the first principles we trainers covered was that reducing pollution at the source was the best practice for controlling contamination (instead of having to clean it up later). And the best way to reduce pollution at the source was substitution - using nontoxic materials in place of toxic ones.

The options for substitution were fewer then. But in the years since I taught my last training, “green chemistry" has been coming into its own, opening up a whole new promising field for innovation in clean technology.

Among its “Twelve Principles" are preventing hazardous waste from being created, maximizing the use of materials (so less are used), designing safer chemicals, using fewer additives, designing for energy efficiency, using renewable feedstocks and making products innocuously degradable. A moment’s reflection will show they not only protect worker and environmental health, but also cut production costs.

From smaller companies like Genomatica, profiled in a recent post by Marc Gunther (instead of hydrocarbons, it uses “carbohydrates”) to big ones like Dow Chemical and BASF, innovative scientists are finding solutions to pollution.

Government assistance is key. In the U.S., the increasingly beleaguered EPA has been instrumental in spurring green chemistry through its Green Chemistry Challenge. But the E.U. has been ahead of the U.S., passing several directives that mandate more easily recycled materials in electronics as well as less toxic substances in electronics production. And its REACH framework aims not only to track toxics, but also to encourage innovation in green chemistry.

Some industries are inherently dangerous to worker and environmental health - like nuclear power. The best way to control pollution at the source is to switch to 100% safe renewable energy as fast as possible - something we could do by 2030, according to a recent study.

That would ensure that no more miners would die, no more nuclear workers would become radioactive and no more workers would be blown up on oil rigs. And all of us will enjoy a safer and healthier environment.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

Talkback Readers: Where were opportunities missed to help safeguard workers? How can companies resolve these lapses to prevent future disasters? Share on Talkback!

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