Nuclear Gypsies and Expendable Day Labor

Today’s New York Times has testimony from Masayuki Ishizawa, a contract worker at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, as he describes being detained in the plant during the earthquake, as the tsunami darkened the horizon…

Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation. Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry. These workers remain vital to efforts to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plants.

They are emblematic of Japan’s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less job security and receive fewer benefits. Such labor practices have both endangered the health of these workers and undermined safety at Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, critics charge.

“This is the hidden world of nuclear power,” said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a longtime campaigner for improved labor conditions in the nuclear industry. “Wherever there are hazardous conditions, these laborers are told to go. It is dangerous for them, and it is dangerous for nuclear safety.”

The whole article is worth reading for a real-world picture of how workers are used up in the industry.

This is not particular to Japan, but rather, an aspect of hazardous work worldwide, including the US. I first saw the phrase, ‘nuclear gypsies’ in reporting on American contract workers who would temp at nuclear plants, max out on allowed exposure, and find work at another plant.

This is from a report by the US Department of Energy…

Since 1989, DOE has conducted an extensive and expensive hazardous waste remediation program at many of its sites across the United States. These are sites where radioactive materials were mined, stored, or processed; where nuclear weapons were designed, fabricated or tested; and where radioactive waste was stored, reprocessed, or disposed of. Increasingly, this remediation work has been done by subcontractors, which imposes a serious worker health and safety challenge.
There is a strong national and even international trend for employers of all sizes to rely on contract labor, temporary hires, or “labor-ready” workers (e.g., day laborers) for tasks that have traditionally been performed by direct hires. Historically, labor contractors have played a major role in the construction industry and in American agriculture, but “contracting out” now pervades most sectors of commerce. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clearly requires site owners and prime contractors to be responsible for ensuring that subcontractors provide for worker health and safety.1 However, labor contractors often skimp on providing workers’ compensation coverage,2 and on the basis of our observations over 25 years of working with the hazardous waste remediation industry, they skimp on safety training as well. The relation between increasing reliance on contract labor or “outsourcing” and health and safety was examined extensively in a report from the John Gray Institute, which identified an appalling lack of data.3 The United States is not alone in these trends.4,5 Contracting usually saves money and sometimes takes advantage of specialized expertise.

Robert Peabody, the Rhode Island man who died in a nuclear reaction, was an undertrained part-time worker.

One of the dangers of nuclear power is human error. Another is corruption and the erosion of safety standards for profit and convenience. These factors exist in every human enterprise. Why should we trust that the nuclear industry is uniquely exempt from human nature and social inequity?


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