October 7, 2007

Black-Ties Have the Best Toasts, but Workers Eat Asbestos

Justin Katz

Readers who have never gained the insight that comes with wearing a blue collar more extensively than for part-time teenager jobs might benefit from some explanation of the way in which incentives work in that world — specifically in residential construction.

The boss wishes to make money and expand his business, both of which require, first, that he finds work and, second, that he finds people to do it. When a particular job becomes available, he submits a bid, or otherwise comes up with a price, and too often the size of the dollar amount is the sole determinant of who wins the bidding process. In fairness to the client, of course, there's a straightforward inverse correlation between the cost of work and the amount of home improvement that can be afforded.

In the case of renovation, the house is usually intact, with furniture and so forth still in place, during this part of the process. In other words, the contractor can only stick his head in so many crevices. Unless he is either bold enough to request permission to bang in some walls in search of such snags as asbestos pipe insulation and to take various samples for lab analysis or a good enough salesman to pitch additional costs for remediation, his incentive is to give the best-case scenario price that he thinks won't come back to bite him.

Bring in the workers.

At some point in the demolition phase, somebody opens up a wall and finds corogated pipe insulation that looks like cardboard or pokes a hole in a ceiling and releases a small shower of spongy vermiculite insulation or pulls up a carpet covering ugly nine-inch floor tiles. Assuming anybody on the jobsite even knows that the material might contain asbestos, what are they to do?

In a salaried corporate or unionized public environment, the workers might stop production, send samples out to a lab, consult the client, get estimates from remediation companies, make an appointment, wait for the process to be completed, and then resume work. If the asbestos' presence is moderately extensive, the entire demo phase might have to be subcontracted to a licensed remediation crew, during which time the original workers — in private-sector construction — are simply biding their time, most likely unemployed. Or they could just make the problem go away in an hour here and there throughout the project.

Clearly, when the "right way" (the legal way) is too expensive and dilatory, the incentive is extremely strong just to make the asbestos disappear, and the fastest ways to accomplish that are also the most likely to contaminate the jobsite throughout the project. A more realistic solution — one not so amenable to the hopes and dreams of lawyers or likely to create a remediation industry — would make objective information easily accessible and require employers to ensure that their workers take reasonable (and minimal) precautions.

Having periodically poked around the online body of knowledge about asbestos, and having discussed the matter with a variety of folks from different walks of life, I've discerned a wide range of opinions about it, usually regardless of the statistics and facts, or even personal experience. While we shouldn't allow those who feel that the danger may be dismissed to set the standards, we shouldn't allow those who feel that any risk ought to be stamped out of life and work to place the safety bar prohibitively high. There are those who simply wouldn't tolerate the possibility of asbestos in the air; there are others who'll reduce it to dust before their own laughing faces. The latter will gravitate toward a vacuum left by the former if a rational middle is disallowed.

I haven't run through this exercise because I think asbestos to be one of the central issues of our times, or even especially relevant to Providence firefighters' cancer claims, but because it allows a tangible response to the the comments of one Providence firefighter, Michael Morse:

Our society should strive to protect the workers who make this country work. Why emulate a company that puts profit before worker safety and financial security? Instead of knocking down government programs that ensure a decent standard of living for disabled workers our time would be better spent improving conditions for everybody. The money is there in the private sector, take a look around, it's right there in front of you. Getting people to do the right thing is the problem.

That is the question of the modern era, isn't it: How do we get people in whose lives money has pooled to do the "right things" with it? That may be the defining difference between schools of economic thought. Arguably, wars have been fought over the answer. Me, I'd be lying if I pretended that I didn't believe one side to be right and one wrong, with the distinction mainly a matter of having mastered emotion sufficiently to think things through. I suspect that somewhere behind his good intentions, Michael understands as much, because he's attempted to divide the options unnaturally: profit for the business/owner versus safety and financial security for the workers.

As the asbestos example shows, the options don't break down thus. If safety means specialized workers with expensive licensing requirements, then the regular construction workers are out of luck. If the profit motive doesn't exist for a contractor to expand or to take as many jobs, then the workers are out of luck. If requirements are such that construction becomes even more expensive, homeowners won't have as much work done (or perhaps they'll simply leave), and... workers are out of luck.

Indeed, Michael elides the problem of social interdependencies in presenting "knocking down government programs" as something distinct from "improving conditions for everybody." Rhode Island has reached the point at which it can no longer pretend that it is taking away from the haves on behalf of the have-lesses. To the extent that our state and municipal programs continue to strangle our economy, the equations of risk, necessity, and willingness that govern life in the working world will require ever greater willingness to take risks just to keep food on the table.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Let them eat Asbestos.. is that your model Jusi? For someone who claims blue collar status you seem to take the bosses side whenever you can

Posted by: Pat Crowley at October 8, 2007 1:09 PM

Apparently we'll have to add reading comprehension to the list of abilities, qualities, and ideals that you don't appear to consider necessary to evince.

The point of the post, if you need it spelled out, is that dictating terms that don't take account of incentives and differing tolerances for risk winds up making it more likely that workers will wind up doing exactly what they oughtn't (exaggerated: eating asbestos).

In tandem with that point is another that biters of the public neck (such as you) strangle the economy and put working class citizens at a disadvantage in the various relationships that constitute the marketplace. In other words, the disproportionate salaries and benefits for which you are willing to compromise your own integrity result in tangible harm to we blue-collar workers.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 8, 2007 5:34 PM

Let's be blunt.

Pat, who is paying to remove the asbestos discovered in the scenario outlined by Justin? The homeowner who scraped together just enough money to do the works and simply doesn't have the extra it will take to abate an unexpected hazmat situation? The company, long bankrupt from litigation, that originally made the asbestoes tiles or pipewrap? Rhode Island taxpayers, already the seventh highest taxed in the country?

Asbestos was originally created and installed with the best of intentions: to keep people safe. Now that it has been deemed toxic, who is responsible for its removal?

Posted by: Monique at October 8, 2007 7:49 PM

(Take this parenthetically, for clarity's sake: Asbestos isn't toxic. It's dangerous because its structure is such that it can break down into extremely fine particles that can lodge in the lungs [and elsewhere in the body, presumably] and cause scars and tumors over decades of irritation.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 8, 2007 7:54 PM

Never stand up for yourself. Let the boss do what he wants. Never complain. It interferes with the free market. Thats the Anchor Rising motto.

"Asbestos isn't toxic."

Posted by: Pat Crowley at October 8, 2007 8:09 PM

Pat, I can stand up and walk out any time. I'm a valued professional and can find work in plenty of different companies. If the boss does unto me in such a way as I don't like, I can leave. But, since my boss values me as an employee, he doesn't treat me like crap, he pays me what I'm worth and offers me a reasonable benefit and bonus program.

Don't try to talk like you've got all the answers on how the free market should work just because somebody read a book on Marxist philosophy once in college. You're a hack toadie that wouldn't last a month in my world. Your best hopes outside of the union environs would be as an office clerk getting someone with integrity their coffee.

Posted by: Greg at October 8, 2007 8:54 PM

Unlike folks who make a living twisting words and manipulating people, I'm interested in precision of meaning. There's a general sense of "toxic" as "bad," but when dealing with hazardous substances the adjective indicates chemical instability and chemical harm. I might be wrong — as I've said, multiple sides have incentive to cloud understanding of class-action-lawsuit-worthy problems — but my understanding is that asbestos is deadly for more mechanical reasons.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 8, 2007 9:12 PM