It is now widely recognized that communities of color in the United States are far more likely than their white counterparts to be exposed to pollution and toxic wastes in their neighborhoods. Black and brown residents of these communities disproportionately suffer from the health effects of these harmful exposures, from children with asthma to seniors with cancer.
Driven by the movement for racial justice, the Biden administration has rightly made addressing these environmental inequities a policy priority. However, there is another crucial aspect of environmental and racial justice that has not gained the same recognition: environment justice in the workplace.
Injustices in the work environment, including toxic chemicals, unguarded machines, working unprotected at heights or in extreme heat, and now Covid-19, are as dangerous as those outside the factory fence. Black and brown workers are more likely to be exposed to workplace hazards than white workers and as a result are at greater risk of injury, illness, and death. In fact, racial discrimination in jobs, with workers of color forced to take the most hazardous positions with the fewest labor protections, has been a fundamental and immutable characteristic of employment relations in this nation since its foundation as a slave republic in 1776—one that has continued through Jim Crow and into the postindustrial era. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed just how little has changed.
As members of the overwhelmingly white office-based workforce have been able to telework, safely in their homes, Black and brown workers were overrepresented among the workers in essential industries who have risked their health and their lives caring for our ill and elderly, ensuring our grocery stores were well stocked and that public transportation functioned. As a result, working-age adults of color died of Covid at much higher rates than white workers.
We believe that if the predominantly white, white-collar workforce had been required to leave home and go to the office from the start of the pandemic and had faced the same risks as meat factory or farm workers, the government and the nation’s employers would have quickly prioritized reducing workplace exposures to SARS-CoV-2.
Even before Covid hit, jobs that have been characterized as essential were among the most dangerous jobs in the country. The repetitive cutting required of beef, pork, and poultry slaughterhouse workers destroys shoulders and arms. Nursing home and hospital workers, who frequently must lift heavy patients, actually have higher injury rates than construction workers or coal miners. Farmworkers perform difficult labor, often in high heat, unprotected from pesticide exposure. Temporary workers, employed in many dangerous industries, are more likely to be nonwhite and are at greater risk of injury than those with permanent jobs. Given all this, it is not surprising that Black and brown workers are far more likely than white workers to have a work-related disability.
On top of exposure to these dangers, many workers of color also suffer from systemic racism in their workplaces—a hazard as toxic as the chemicals they breathe on the shop floor. In effect, workplace racism weakens the basic requirement for safe workplaces for all workers of all races, endangering the health and safety of everyone. If a home builder can exploit immigrant, unauthorized workers of color who are afraid to complain about unsafe conditions or apply for workers’ compensation when they are injured, or if a meat processing firm employs refugees who are willing to accept unacceptably hazardous work, those employers will be able to avoid hiring workers who demand better, safer conditions.
Unfortunately, the tools currently available to fix these problems are inadequate and badly need reform. The labor movement has been weakened, and only a small percentage of private-sector workers are unionized. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), charged with requiring employers to keep workplaces safe, is underfunded and unable to provide proper, vigorous oversight.
Workplace injuries and illnesses contribute to our economic inequality crisis, sending middle-class workers into poverty and keeping many poor people from joining the middle class altogether. The workers’ compensation system, meant to help those hurt on the job, often provides no compensation at all, or payments that do not come close to replacing lost income or covering medical expenses.
Equity and justice in the workplace do not mean raising up the conditions of workers of color to be on equal footing as white workers if the workplace environment exposes all workers to unnecessary risk of injury and inadequate compensation. No worker should be forced to choose between an unsafe job and unemployment.
Equity and justice in the workplace require strengthening labor protections for all workers, so employers can no longer get away with not investing in making jobs safe by exploiting BIPOC, unauthorized, and/or temporary workers. Federal law needs to be changed to make it easier for workers to join unions. OSHA and other government agencies must be given greater resources and greater authority to focus on eliminating hazards in the most dangerous workplaces where workers of color are overrepresented. And it means reforming the workers’ compensation system, so injured workers get full replacement for lost income.
The environmental justice movement has long affirmed the right of all workers, regardless of race, to a safe and healthy work environment. All workers need good, safe jobs that enable them to support their families. Within the Biden administration’s vital efforts on environmental and racial justice, workplace environmental justice must be made a high priority.