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Book Review
January 2023

Rethinking workplace disasters

Havoc and Reform: Workplace Disasters in Modern America. By James P. Kraft. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021, 272 pp., $57.00 hardcover.

Workplace disasters may seem like a thing of the past, stuck in the coal mines of Appalachia or the steel mills of Pittsburgh. However, as author James P. Kraft demonstrates in Havoc and Reform: Workplace Disasters in Modern America, workplace disasters have persisted long after the Industrial Revolution. As the title of the book suggests, the United States has a long history of workplace havoc and resulting reform. Drawing parallels with our industrial past, Kraft demonstrates how new hazards still emerge from new technologies, even though our workplaces and jobs have changed dramatically. Although disasters have a short duration, they do have three distinct phases: preimpact, impact, and postimpact. This life cycle guides the author’s portrayal of the events featured in the book.

In chapter 1 of the book, Kraft begins by outlining the history of workplace disasters in the United States, covering the period from the mid-19th century through World War II. Each of the following five chapters recounts a single workplace disaster that occurred in the western Sunbelt region during the post-World War II era. The author uses these examples to highlight the two-sided nature of technological and industrial development, showing that with progress and innovation come new risks. The analysis examines the three distinct phases of each disaster and the ways in which the disasters changed workplace safety standards in affected regions and nationwide.

On April 16, 1947, a steamship carrying government-owned ammunition and fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (a new chemical compound known as FGAN) exploded while docked in the port of Texas City, Texas. Besides devastating the port and surrounding areas, the accident destroyed a nearby Monsanto chemical plant, causing the death of 154 plant employees and injuring some 200 more. In chapter 2, Kraft focuses on the Monsanto plant, exploring its development and importance for wartime rubber manufacturing, its diverse workforce, and the hardships plant employees faced after the accident. By recounting the Monsanto event, the author demonstrates the two-sided nature of advancement. The properties of the newly developed FGAN were poorly understood, and, unfortunately, the compound’s improper storage and exposure to heat led to the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.

The next disaster, covered in chapter 3, reveals how rapid advancements in air travel far outpaced the nation’s air traffic control policies after World War II. At this time, pilots were relying on Visual Flight Rules, whereby they watched for incoming planes and took evasive action to avoid collisions. However, over time, this “see and be seen” principle became less effective, leading to an increasing number of in-air collisions. On June 30, 1956, an especially devastating crash occurred when two planes (Trans World Airlines Flight 2 and United Airlines Flight 718) collided over the Grand Canyon, killing all 128 people aboard, including many on- and off-duty employees. By using this example, Kraft demonstrates the often long and complicated process of introducing new safety legislation. After a series of new safety measures proved ineffective in reducing the number of in-air collisions, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Act, combining existing air control agencies and creating the Federal Aviation Agency. By 1960, this federal agency, whose inception was a huge feat in air traffic safety, became the largest and most complex U.S. government agency.

Chapter 4 turns the reader’s attention to a 6.6-magnitude earthquake that struck just north of Los Angeles on February 9, 1971. Here, Kraft focuses on the toll this earthquake took on two hospitals in Sylmar, California, highlighting the idea that many “natural” disasters are “socially produced.” The author details Southern California’s rapid population growth in the middle of the 20th century, noting that the area’s population more than doubled between 1945 and 1965. He also explores the long history of earthquakes in California and the failure of the state’s seismic safety codes to protect its booming population. The complete collapse of the two Sylmar hospitals during the 1971 earthquake exposed deficiencies in seismic safety codes and led to calls for stricter regulations. These calls eventually led to the Hospital Seismic Safety Act, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972, and several years later, in 1977, to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. Both measures demonstrate the close relationship between disasters and public policy reform. The chapter’s takeaway is that if natural disasters are not accounted for during development, they can wreak havoc not only on workplaces but entire communities.

Chapter 5 reveals the need for stricter fire codes by recounting a major fire that burned through the MGM Grand resort in Las Vegas on November 21, 1980. The fire was covered extensively by the media, but the resort’s 4,500 employees were generally overlooked in reports. Kraft uses the personal accounts of those who lost their jobs to the fire to demonstrate their difficulties in receiving unemployment benefits and finding employment elsewhere. This disaster exposed the limited ability of the modern welfare system to provide aid after a large-scale event. Mounting pressure from the media, paired with the threat of losing tourists, eventually led to a major safety movement, forcing Nevada to pass the nation’s strictest fire safety laws.

Finally, chapter 6 focuses on a major terrorist attack that occurred on the morning of April 19, 1995, when a truck bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Kraft acknowledges that, as America’s worst act of domestic terrorism, this event has been covered extensively by scholars. He stresses, however, that little is known about the building itself and the employees affected. Using personal accounts, the author conveys the terror of the event for those who worked in the building at the time of the attack and the difficulties they faced in resuming life and work afterward. Although the examples featured in earlier chapters all carry tremendous weight, this chapter highlights the importance of continually developing preventive measures to ensure the safety of our workplaces. The Oklahoma City bombing also shows that, despite reconstruction efforts and the adoption of new safety policies in the wake of the event, the postimpact lives of those affected by disasters would never mirror their preimpact experience. As bombing survivor Jennifer Takagi conveyed, some “just couldn’t get past that day.”

Havoc and Reform is an accessible and interesting book, forcing the reader to reconsider what constitutes a workplace disaster. Kraft artfully walks the reader through the three stages of each disaster, providing a thorough and vivid account in each chapter. His use of primary sources, including photos and personal accounts, makes the narrative incredibly powerful. The book could benefit not only those specializing in disaster studies but also anyone interested in learning more about the U.S. history of havoc and reform. Kraft leaves us with a final note that safety reform is a never-ending process. As our workplaces and technologies change, so too should safety tools and regulations. As former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said, “Building a culture of prevention is not easy. While the costs of prevention have to be paid in the present, its benefits lie in a distant future. Moreover, the benefits are not tangible, they are the disasters that did not happen.”

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About the Reviewer

Emma Sillman

Emma Sillman is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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