Michael Nolan is a 33-year-old man with just a few years left to live. He wasn’t born with a life-shortening condition. There wasn’t something insidious hiding in his genetic makeup. His life expectancy was halved after he spent a decade working as a stonemason. “I can’t even laugh properly any more”, he told the Guardian in July, four months after his silicosis diagnosis.
Silica is the new asbestos. Workers in a range of trades are forced to breathe in crystalline silica – a fine dust found in common materials like sand, stone, concrete – while at work. It accumulates in their lungs and suffocates them. A lung transplant only buys you extra time in what is ultimately a death sentence.
As with asbestos, what action has been taken has come far too late, after decades of dodging by employers and negligence from the government. And like asbestos, it's just one example in a never ending list of ways capitalism poisons working class people.
Silica is easy to safeguard against. Campaigns by Australian unions and the Cancer Council demanded the mandatory dust exposure limit be reduced to 0.01 milligrams per cubic metre over an eight-hour shift. To satisfy this, employers would need to set in place better planned construction and design protocols, and use some new equipment.
Safe Work Australia, however, settled on a 0.05 milligram limit in July and gave employers three years to meet it. This is four times the limit set in the United States, which is hardly a bastion of workers’ rights and health care.
Frederick Engels wrote in 1845 that nothing exists for the bourgeoisie except money: “It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold”. For Australia’s bosses, the pain of workers’ silicosis is nothing compared to the pain of that lost gold.
To change protocols, implement techniques (that are perhaps more time consuming, for example) and use new equipment all costs money, which digs into an employer’s bottom line. According to the Guardian, it would cost large quarries a couple of million dollars in new equipment, and the construction sector hundreds of millions, to act in accordance with a significant reduction in the dust exposure limit. Why spend all that money when it’s so much cheaper and easier to keep killing workers?
The profit motive has always spread sickness and disease through the working class. When Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England 174 years ago, he said that their conditions made it impossible for the lower class to be healthy and live long: “What else can be expected than an excessive mortality, an unbroken series of epidemics, a progressive deterioration in the physique of the working population?”
He studied the working class both at home and at work. In neither place could they escape being poisoned. His descriptions of working class areas afflicted by pollution are evoked by the sight of northern working class suburbs in Melbourne being regularly covered by toxic smoke from factory fires.
Engels wrote of miners who “age prematurely and become unfit for work between the thirty-fifth and forty-fifth years” and who inhale dust that “seriously affects the lungs, disturbs the actions of the heart, and diminishes the activity of the digestive organs”. Engels was observing a newly formed working class at the dawn of the industrial revolution, but he could have been writing about Michael Nolan.
No matter what changes under capitalism, these features will stay the same. New products and new production processes will bring new diseases and injuries. But the capitalists’ drive to ignore the truth and cover up their culpability will remain constant. The profit motive has no regard for science (let alone human need) unless it increases a profit margin. Diseased workers – whether afflicted by asbestosis, silicosis, black lung or the next industrial disease we haven’t heard of yet – are the result of a sick system. You can’t get rid of the former without overthrowing the latter.