What Does Racism Have to Do With Workers' Comp?

Despite what the PC police may think, fuzzy notions of social inequity don't have much of a role in keeping the workplace safe.
November 30, 2015
By Noel S. Williams  |  Contributor
An information-technology specialist for a Washington State agency.

Political correctness is so pervasive that sometimes only the most egregious examples ruffle our feathers. Do you ever wonder: How can anyone in their right mind ever say/do that? OK, maybe they're not in their right minds, but the sentinels of correctness can drive one to distraction, so even very gracious and smart people succumb to conformity in order to stay off their radar.

I work for a safety and health organization, part of a state agency, that is composed of top-notch researchers. Our mandate is to elucidate and eradicate the workplace safety and health hazards that are the preponderance of workers' compensation claims -- things like musculoskeletal disorders, industrial-hygiene shortcomings, workplace violence and slip/trips/falls.

These are equal-opportunity hazards: The slippery ladders and toxic chemicals don't care whence you came. Nevertheless, the researchers are being compelled to delve into fuzzy notions of social inequity as it pertains to health-care disparities.

Superfluous to our charter, the PhDs assemble in workgroups whose mandate is: "Incorporate an understanding of the link between racism and health outcomes into our work, and be accountable to oppressed populations, considering our position of privilege and power as researchers."

The distraction from their mission is renegade, but the prism through which they investigate apparent disparities is pernicious: racism. Action items include pondering race as a social construct, the exercise of privilege, and all of the different kinds of subtle racism, particularly as it relates to unequal health access and outcomes. The meeting agenda proposes that "every new project consider race and ethnicity" and that we focus on subtle and unconscious racism.

Being asked to uncover subtle racism in our subconscious dwellings reminds me of those psychic "precogs" from the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report who can predict crime before it happens. But instead of dreaming of murder, the precogs of political correctness dream of racism.

In our mission of alleviating costly workplace hazards, we are accountable to our state's taxpayers and to various federal grants, few of which stipulate racism as an imperative. It's all quite dissonant when examined in light of the recent findings by Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and his colleague Anne Case demonstrating that mortality and morbidity rates among middle-aged whites are rising dramatically relative to other groups.

Turns out that education is the key predictor of health outcomes. And the research by Deaton and Case corroborate this; for example, the mortality rate for middle-aged whites with no more than a high-school education increased by 22.3 percent between 1999 and 2013.

The main barriers to educational attainment certainly have a disproportionate impact on low-income families, but focusing purely on racism diverts attention from the poor schools, unstable families, bad neighborhoods and drug abuse that are primary causes of the "achievement gap."

While my workplace is full of magnanimous and caring people who've made significant contributions to workplace safety and health research, they've taken a detour from the sunlit uplands of relevant research into the roiling hinterlands of racial politics. To a large degree, their navigator has been the American Public Health Association.

The APHA hosted a series of webinars on "The Impact of Racism on the Health and Well-Being of the Nation." The webinar webpage betrays a pre-cog predisposition, stating that "the recent events in Charleston, South Carolina, Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, remind us that stigma, inequalities and civil rights injustices remain in our society today."

Are you wondering how these horrific events relate in any direct way to the aching backs and carpal-tunnel afflictions of the workplace? So am I. But I know why learned, devoted PhDs whose mission is to make the workplace safer for everyone feel obliged to consider race in every new project: to protect themselves from the precogs.