Havoc and Reform
Workplace Disasters in Modern America
Workplace disasters have wreaked havoc on countless American workers and their families. They have resulted in widespread death and disability, as well as the loss of property and savings. These tragic events have also inspired safety reforms that reshaped labor conditions in ways that partially compensated for death, suffering, and social dislocation. In Havoc and Reform, James P. Kraft encourages readers to think about such disastrous events in new ways. Placing the problem of workplace safety in historical context, Kraft focuses on five catastrophes that shocked the nation in the half century after World War II, a time when service-oriented industries became the nation's leading engines of job growth.
Looking to growing areas of economic life in the Western Sunbelt, Kraft touches on the 1947 explosion of the Texas City Monsanto Chemical Company plant; the 1956 airliner collision over the Grand Canyon; the hospital collapses following the 1971 San Fernando earthquake; the 1980 fire at the Las Vegas MGM Grand; and the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. These incidents destroyed places of employment that seemed safe and affected a relatively wide range of working people, including highly trained, salaried professionals and blue- and white-collar groups. And each took a toll on the general public, increasing fears that anyone could be in danger of being killed or injured, putting added pressure on public officials to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
As Kraft considers how these tragedies transformed individual lives and specific work environments, he describes how employees, employers, and public leaders reacted to each event. Presented chronologically, his studies offer a unique and sobering outlook on the rise of a now vital, integral part of the national economy. They also underscore the ubiquity and persistence of workplace disasters in American history while building on and challenging literature about the impact of World War II in the American West. Within a broader frame, they speak to the double-edged nature of modern life.
About the Author
James P. Kraft is a professor of US business, labor, and the American West at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. He is the author of Stage to Studio: Musicians and the Sound Revolution, 1890–1950 and Vegas at Odds: Labor Conflict in a Leisure Economy, 1960–1985.
"An excellent book. The cases are well-chosen, the narrative often gripping, and the use of primary sources, especially the intensive archival research conducted throughout the United States, is exemplary. Havoc and Reform will interest anyone concerned about the cause and mitigation of disasters."
"James Kraft tells the fascinating stories of five major workplace disasters in the modern American West, reaching important conclusions about the nature of society, politics, and public policies in that region. Havoc and Reform is essential reading for anyone interested in business history, labor history, and the history of the American West."
"James Kraft's vividly arresting account of modern workplace catastrophes shows how heartbreaking calamity has repeatedly triggered reforms that have protected both workers and the broader public. As we confront the dangerous work that persists in our warming, digitizing, pandemic-menaced world, we can learn much from this timely, ultimately hopeful narrative."
"This book is a rare work of disaster scholarship that distinguishes itself in two important ways: first, through its distinctive focus on workers, and second, by providing vignettes of specific individuals that enliven abstract concepts such as the altruistic community."
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