Letter: Unsafe Conditions in White Collar Workplaces

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Often times when I worked at FedEx, with its rampant disregard for worker safety, I pondered how nice and healthy it would be to work in an office environment, not having to worry about things like a limb getting maimed by unprotected machinery, inhalation of harmful chemical fumes or exposure to level 3 radioactive materials in heavy lead containers.  Of course, my reality perception was given a twist once I began working at the local newspaper in the Art Dept.  

The office itself is located right next to the pressroom, which, during the printing process, splatters a lot of ink particles that tend to accumulate into a black coating on everything in the pressroom.  Since the Press Room ventilation system is tied into the Art Dept.’s system, a black accumulation appears on the vents and on everything around in the Art Dept.  The effects could be seen on the old Mac G3s that were originally white in color, but had turned a dull gray color over time, due to the accumulating ink particles.    

It might seem to be nothing of importance other than an annoyance on coming in seeing dingy computers, but one has to wonder what effect this accumulation is having on something more important – the workers’ lungs.  I can speak for most when I say that we can be fine before we walk into the Art Dept., meaning no coughing, no minor respiratory irritation nor any sneezing, but once you take a breath in the room, the coughing and sneezing begins as if on cue.  Others have complained about minor irritations in their throats.  

The Art Dept. is located in what used to be nothing more than a storage room.  When the Art Dept. decided to expand its electronic pre-press it couldn’t find any other place to put it.  Since it was a storage room, what need did it have for a quality ventilation system?  Without any foresight into the problems that would plague the air conditioner with its constant freezing up and the scuzz and crud of ink particle accumulation on the vents, the room was cleared out hastily and replaced with computers and all the trappings of a modern day Art Dept. – minus the safe working conditions.

Due to most newspapers, if not all, switching over to recycled paper for their newsprint, the paper  itself is rather dull and thus the colors from the old inks didn’t show through.  In order to counter this, a new formula for the ink had to be made which resulted in a brighter ink to compensate for the dull paper, but unfortunately it also meant a more toxic ink.  Since newspapers these days, even small-town ones like the one I work at, use more color on their pages these days it’s important to state that colored inks have more contaminants than ordinary black inks, which are primarily carbon based.  During the printing process, ink particles have a tendency to fly off and vaporize into the air.  Of course, that makes it seem safe, but in reality it’s still wet and adheres to other particles in the air, flowing up the vents in the press room and being redistributed mostly in the Art Dept. Like all particles that accumulate in the lungs, the damage done can have dire repercussions in the future.  When particles enter the lungs they build up in the most vital part of the lungs, the air sacs.  If these air sacs are blocked, that means less oxygen getting into your bloodstream.  Now the combined effects are still unknown, considering the Art Dept. has been in its present location for just 5 or 6 years.  But there are frequent outbreaks of minor respiratory system ailments such as colds and sometimes a slight irritation in the throat that causes coughing and sneezing fits.  Compared to the editorial staff and sales people up front, us Art Dept. workers exhibit these symptoms far more frequently.     

As for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the main federal agency charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation, they didn’t even bother venturing into the Art Dept. to witness for themselves the disgusting and atrocious vents.  All that changed at the workplace after their latest visit was the putting up of a sign warning people with pacemakers about microwave ovens being in use, and putting a warning label concerning a trip hazard of a step between the Art Dept. and Editorial.  Even the water-damaged, crack and duct-taped ceilings up in Editorial didn’t even make OSHA bat an eye.   

I know from experience that there are workers who have it way worse than some “office snobs”, but my philosophy is equality for all no matter what work you do.  The workers are the cogs of a huge machine that make the entire apparatus run.  Without workers doing all the work, nothing will get done unless the greedy capitalists are willing to scrape their elbows a bit to do the work themselves.  Somehow, though, I doubt that.  Capitalists only know how to make money one-way: by earning off the toil and labor of others.  It’s imperative that workers control their places of employment, no matter whether it’s a seemingly pristine office or a dingy, machine-filled warehouse.  Capitalists have no concern for their workers because to them we are expendable and can be replaced on a moment’s notice.  To them we’re nothing more than worn down cogs in the vast capitalist machine that can be replaced with no problem.  Our capitalist masters do not see us as people with needs, families and hopes, we’re just seen as easily replaceable parts. It’s time for workers to organize and take back what is rightfully theirs – the workplace, their health and their own lives!  We are not drone ants without minds, but human beings with the ability to think and to act, so act now before it’s too late!

Martin Christiansen

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