Large companies are incentivized to ignore worker safety, study finds

A study of over 100,000 businesses in Oregon uncovered some unsettling news about worker conditions.

Former injured Amazon employees join labor organizers and community activists to demonstrate and hold a press conference outside of an Amazon Go store in the loop to express concerns about what they claim is the company's "alarming injury rate" among warehouse workers on December 10, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • A study of over 100,000 Oregon-based businesses found companies are incentivized to ignore worker safety.
  • As states begin to reopen, 17 states are seeing increased numbers of coronavirus cases.
  • The biggest outbreaks are occurring at cramped and unsanitary meatpacking plants.


For a few weeks the media emphasized the need for hazard pay, or as some corporations called it, "hero's pay." While coronavirus cases are not going down everywhere—in 17 states infection rates are rising—companies such as Krogers and Starbucks are ending small salary bumps even though their workers are not out of danger.

In good news, Target extended its $2-an-hour bump through July 4. Amazon, however, felt its employees would prefer a "thank you" t-shirt over hazard pay. (They don't.) Many employees, such as New Orleans sanitation workers, never received a requested increase. They've been striking for six weeks.

Given the circumstances, you'd expect corporations that are thriving during the pandemic to extend earnings to their workers. It hasn't played out like that. A new study of over 100,000 Oregon-based businesses offers insight into why spending more on worker safety isn't important to larger companies: It costs more to ensure their wellbeing than to ignore it.

Published in the journal Management Science and conducted by a group of academics in Oregon, Ohio, Dublin, and Cugat, Spain, this research was inspired by an ongoing debate regarding worker safety and enhanced prosperity. The team wanted to know if safer working conditions lead to greater profits. The short answer is no, at least if your company has over 100 employees.

Amazon Employees Speak Out About Workplace Conditions | NBC Nightly News

Common sense has it that safer working conditions should result in reduced need for self-protection and greater commitment to the organization. Business owners weigh worker safety against overall productivity, however. Larger companies are willing to gamble. The team explains:

"Organizations that do not provide a safe workplace gain an economic advantage by avoiding burdensome costs and being more productive, which may explain why even proponents of 'it pays to be safe' provide evidence that numerous organizations are not safe."

The researchers pored over disabling claims provided by the Oregon Department of Consumer Affairs. Those claims include workers who had taken at least three days off from work as well as those claiming a potentially permanent disability. As can be expected, serious claims are more expensive.

Here's where it gets counterintuitive: Companies with worker injury claims survive up to 56 percent longer than companies without claims. The researchers say that is in large part due to lack of regulations: "Our results imply that the regulations of a developed economy are not enough to incent the elimination of poor safety."

That's right: Companies with the most resources to ensure worker safety are the least incentivized to do so.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair opened the nation's eyes to the horrors of wage slavery. "The Jungle" began as an exposé in a socialist newspaper; Sinclair spent seven weeks working undercover in Chicago meatpacking plants. Though President Roosevelt initially called Sinclair a "crackpot," he assigned two employees to investigate these facilities. Sinclair wasn't exaggerating. The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act resulted from his reporting. The latter act inspired the creation of the Bureau of Chemistry, today known as the FDA.

The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant

A sign for The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota, one of the countrys largest known Coronavirus clusters, is seen on April 20, 2020 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP

In "The Jungle," Sinclair artfully describes how the main character, a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus, should feel after being hired by the mammoth Durham's Pure Leaf Lard, a corporation employing 30,000 people.

"All that a mere man could do, it seemed to Jurgis, was to take a thing like this as he found it, and do what he was told; to be given a place in it and a share in its wonderful activities was a blessing to be grateful for, as one was grateful for the sunshine and the rain."

On May 16, 700 new coronavirus cases were reported at meatpacking plants in the region of Amarillo, Texas. Alongside nursing homes and jails, these plants are hotspots for the coronavirus. The combination of cold temperatures, long working hours, and cramped, unsanitary conditions have made these facilities extremely dangerous. The pandemic has exposed how little has changed since Sinclair's muckraking.

According to the Oregon study, businesses providing safety measures and improving competitiveness are few and far between. That's because "treating compliance as a cost, and trying to comply, is more expensive than not complying and having accidents." Governmental agencies predominantly let businesses self-regulate given their hamstrung inspection teams. The team concludes "the costs of preventing all harm is higher than the costs of not doing so."

Makes you wonder who really wants to reopen America so badly. They will most likely not be on the assembly line.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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