Magazine article Occupational Hazards

A Matter of Trust

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

A Matter of Trust

Article excerpt

Growing up in Arkansas, Manville Corp. Chairman Tom Stephens recalled, he learned that if you fire directly at a duck in flight, "all you're going to shoot is air." To hit your target, he explained, you have to aim ahead.

Manville failed to do that with regard to asbestos, Stephens admits. The results, as he told attendees at the Professional Conference on Industrial Hygiene (PCIH) in Colorado Springs last month, was "Our shareholders paid with cash, but our workers paid with their lives."

Any company trying to evaluate the worth of its safety and health programs should heed Stephens' analysis of what happened to Manville. There is an "unwritten social contract" between companies and society, he explained. When companies fail to uphold that contract, as Manville did, the tort system steps in to "close that gap between the written law and the attitudes of society." Manville failed to tell its employees and customers all it knew about the potentially deadly product it was selling. In retaliation, Stephens observed, "the tort system closed around its neck and choked it to its knees."

The long latency of asbestos allowed not only time for lung disease and cancer to manifest itself in workers. It also allowed, as Stephens noted, time for public attitudes to change. Society moved from an attitude of "Let the buyer beware" to one of "Let the producer be responsible." When many companies failed to heed that change, said Stephens, the public eventually developed an attitude that "assumes that the corporation cannot be trusted and it has to be regulated. …

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