Workers Seeking Emergency Care

DETROIT–The huge Hydra-Matic plant of General Motors in nearby Willow Run sprawls over a mile like a bustling town. More than 11,000 workers on three shifts labor there for the world’s largest automaker. Recently, a petition circulated throughout the factory that proved quite popular. About 6,000 workers signed it.

The petition’s demands were quite modest though likely to irritate the plant’s managers. The employees were demanding an adequate emergency medical service system operated over a 24-hour period by qualified people.

To hear the workers’ side, the present situation is terrible. Accidents and injuries occur. People have heart attacks or other sudden illnesses. Yet emergency treatment can take the form of security personnel trying to be medics transporting the victims on hi-lows, scooters or, if it is not too far away, in the single, ill-equipped ambulance. The ambulance not only is unable to gain access to major areas of the factory–thus losing valuable time–but then it has to connect with an outside ambulance service to take patients to the hospital.

The main medical department is open only during the day shift, five days a week. There are two physicians and several nurses who are not viewed by the workers as advocates for better emergency care. The medical department’s motivation, assert the petitioners, is to return injured workers to work as soon as possible to avoid productivity losses. On the other shifts, there are no physicians but there are nurses.

Hydra-Matic management is not pleased with the petitioners’ view of emergency medical care at the plant. GM claims that things are up to snuff and that the United Auto Workers’ local there is not sharing in the dissent. The dissident workers say that neither the union local nor the Detroit inspector of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are responding to their grievances.

The sincerity of the petitioners seems clear. They have gained nothing from their crusade except what they believe is harassment and penalties. One of them said: “There exists a problem where I work. It does not only affect the people in our plant, but people in factories elsewhere. Many people have died needlessly or lost their limbs or suffered unnecessary pain and abuse.”

This view is in marked contrast to the official GM view.

But GM’s Hydra-Matic has produced other findings about the plant’s safety record which it has not circulated among the workers. An internal plant memo to “All Supervisors” dated Feb. 7, 1978, documents an alarming increase in injury exposure. The memo notes “that strain and sprain lead the list for 1977 and (sic) an increase of 43 percent over the 1976 adjusted figure. Sometimes we only think of accidents that are traumatic in nature such as amputations, lacerations, and fractures; however, sprains and strains are just as disabling and in many cases easier controlled.”

In a few weeks, the United Auto Workers will convene a conference of members to discuss what health and safety issues should be part of the next contract bargaining sessions with management. Emergency medical care should be on the agenda. It is one of the most neglected areas of plant safety and one where many of the medical staff are torn between pressures to shield management from liability and their professional duty to worker health.

In discussing the problem at Hydra-Matic with some of the workers, I remembered how many members of Congress were kneejerking to the industrialists and voicing anti-OSHA epithets. To them, OSHA was too tough. Cold-blooded Congressman George Hansen (Rep., Idaho) even wants to abolish OSHA and in the meantime keep OSHA inspectors out of the factories.

Since the OSHA safety law was passed in 1970, tragedies and medical evidence have accumulated to show how more than 115,000 workers die of worker-related diseases and injuries every year, in addition to the greater number of disabilities.

Still, many members of Congress look the other way or join the baying pack against OSHA. Perhaps, instead of some of their overseas junkets, these legislators should go into the mines, foundries and factories for a few days and see what is is like.

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