Every year 14,000 Americans die from on-the-job accidents; another 2.2 million suffer disabling injuries. In addition, there are annually 390,000 new cases of occupational illnesses brought on by workplace exposure to chemicals and other irritants. Because of the difficulty in diagnosing these diseases as being definitively caused by job-related exposure, their actual incidence is probably far greater than these figures indicate.
Although much of the literature on occupational health and safety blames worker carelessness for the problem, virtually every women I interviewed stressed the importance of working in a safe manner. Laura Pfandler, whose job requirements include welding on live gas lines, has a healthy fear of inadvertently setting off a gas fire. Diana Clarke takes every possible measure to protect her fire-fighting crew, but nevertheless worries about abrupt changes in the wind that might cause a fire to turn upon them. For Michelle Sanborn, the main danger comes from breathing toxic chemicals while working in an unventilated room. In fact, none of the seven women injured on the job had been behaving in a reckless manner at the time of the accidents. Instead, injuries just seem to be a natural part of working in a trade.
This does not, however, address the often asked question of do women get injured more than men? Thus far there has been minimal comparative research done on this subject. Critics assert that women’s bodies are simply not strong enough to withstand the physical abuse associated with blue-collar jobs. But I do believe that the women in this collection can add some insights that traditional academic studies might miss. First off, safely performing blue-collar work can involve brains and common sense as much as brawn. After studying how men lifted heavy weights, Amy Kelley evolved a system that relied upon her hips more than her back. Beth Gedney found that men on her ship appreciated her refusal to perform unsafe acts because it gave the men themselves a way out of their macho peer group’s pressures to lift too much. And finally, across-the-board comparisons of male and female accident rates will miss the impact sex discrimination has on inflating the women’s rate. When Beverly Brown first sought employment in the mills, she was told horror stories of how the only woman to ever work in the plant had gotten injured. Instead of being daunted, Brown asked for more details and discovered the men had refused to show the woman the proper procedures for working with the machinery. This theme of discrimination leading to injuries also appears in Lydia Vasquez’ and Teresa Selfe’s stories.
For some of the women, the physical pain caused by their accidents is only a small part of their suffering. Whether due to callousness or oversight, encounters with the medical establishment have turned into bureaucratic nightmares. Kathryn Brooke was sent home from an emergency room with two aspirin for a broken tailbone. Lydia Vasquez, who has been unable to work for three years, is still being bounced around by different agencies and has collected nothing in disability. One cannot help but wonder if middle-class male patients receive the same treatment.
Even though on-the-job injuries are of concern to both male and female workers, sex discrimination intensifies the impact it has upon women. It is more difficult for women to receive adequate training, fair job assignments, and decent medical care. And finally, as long as a woman’s chance of getting another well-paying job is minimal, women like Nora Quealey will continue to work in life-endangering conditions because they have children to support.