Image: Fire engine douses reactor number 3
Jiji Press  /  AFP - Getty Images
Japanese crews took the danerous step of using a fire engine's water cannon on a damaged reactor Saturday.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/21/2011 12:55:58 PM ET 2011-03-21T16:55:58

The world has been watching with awe as rotating teams of Japanese workers brave radiation exposure to battle a potential nuclear disaster following the massive earthquake and tsunami that rocked the island nation March 11.

As others have evacuated from miles around the badly damaged nuclear complex for fear of a major meltdown and radiation contamination, these employees, many voluntarily, have entered the facilities to do what they could to contain the problem, and have been hailed as heroes. One report in the New York Times last week said the workers were wearing gear that offered “scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.” And a Japanese government official told ABC News that the workers were on a “suicide mission.”

On Monday workers were evacuated from the affected area as a precautionary measure as gray smoke rose from two reactor units, delaying efforts to stabilize the complex.

Story: No quick fix seen at Japan nuclear plant

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could willingly take on such dangerous work, but it happens every day when individuals choose to risky occupations, from firefighting to covering wars. Who can forget the first responders who entered the Twin Towers to save office workers on Sept. 11, 2001? Just last week four New York Times journalists went missing in politically unstable Libya, although they have since been freed unharmed.

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Many see these people as heroes, but would you put your life at risk for a job to help the greater good, or just for a paycheck? And should you? In the United States, short of public safety emergencies and risky government gigs, labor laws don’t generally allow employees to risk life and limb for a job.

It takes a certain type of person to face danger head on, said Scott Allison, a professor of psychology at the University of Richmond and co-author of “Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them.” But it’s unclear, he added, what truly drives the people who do it. Many of them are driven by a desire to do something for the greater good, or by patriotism, while sometimes it’s a love of the thrill, money or fame.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” he said. “We know very little about heroes and heroism. It’s one of most understudied topics in social sciences.”

When placed in a crisis situation some individuals “get paralyzed, and won’t know what to do, or they flee; and others will step up to the plate,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with experience and background. Some people have the background and training to respond intelligently to a situation rather than emotionally and with fear.”

Take Jim Bob Murray, a fire chief from Luling, Texas, who used to ride bulls in a rodeo. In 2004, he was working at Sears as a warehouse welder when he decided to risk his life and take a job as a driver in Iraq.

“I was working with a lot of vets, and my son was in the Air Force so I wanted to show support for our troops,” said Murray. At 40 he was too old to enlist, but he could drive a truck and help move supplies and soldiers. “I knew what I was going into. You had to drive through bullets to get where you were going.”

He saw several men he worked with killed and others seriously wounded, but “looking back, I think it was a great experience, and I don’t regret it.”

While going into a war zone is probably as risky as it gets, there are many other jobs that pose substantial hazards. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatalities on the job happen most often in the fishing, logging, aviation, farming and roofing industries.

But risking serious injury or death for a job is, for the most part, not allowed under the nation’s labor laws, whether you’re trying to be a hero or not.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which created the federal safety agency, OSHA, covers all private sector employees and federal employees, but not state and or local government workers, said Paul Secunda, associate law professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. There are 21 states, he added, that cover public employees, and many of those employees are in industrial states.

Story: Businesses wrestle with evacuation decisions

Federal employees are a whole other matter, and while OSHA monitors employee safety for some agencies it does not have jurisdiction to impose fines. And, clearly, there are non-military government jobs where employees can sign up for perilous positions. For gigs like this, the U.S. Department of State has something called “danger pay.”

The State Department’s website notes that “danger Pay is additional compensation above basic compensation for service at designated Danger Pay posts where civil insurrection, terrorism, or war conditions threaten physical harm or imminent danger to all U.S. Government civilian employees.”

At nuclear facilities OSHA has partial jurisdiction on worker safety, but not when it comes to radiation exposure. According to a 1988 memorandum between the two agencies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees radiation and chemical risks at NRC-licensed facilities, while OSHA handles general occupational risks at plants.

This doesn’t mean protections for those workers when it comes to radiation exposure are any less stringent than employee safety safeguards in any other industry, Secunda maintained.

“You are not required to work in conditions [that] would either cause you serious health problems or death,” Secunda said, although he said there may be some exemptions for public emergencies, such as the one in Japan.

(A request to OSHA officials to discuss possible exemptions under such circumstances was not answered by press time.)

Also, if a worker thinks he or she is in imminent danger at work, he continued, that employee doesn’t have to even notify OSHA. The worker can just walk off the job and be protected from being fired or demoted as a result.

“OSHA has the ability to close down workplaces that are too hazardous,” Secunda said. Workers may not understand the risks they’re taking, or they may have been coerced into doing a dangerous job with the promise of a big payoff, he noted.

In the case of the Japanese nuclear plant workers, “a communitarian standard and the fear of shaming your family” may be driving the decisions to go back into the nuclear plant, said Secunda, who spent time in Japan and has written papers on Japanese dispute resolution.

“There’s a sense of social responsibility the Japanese have that we are lacking,” he noted. They see it, he said, “as glorious to give your life for a greater cause. They came up with Kamikazes, after all.”

But even the Japanese have their limits when it comes to heroism on the job.

Fourteen elderly patients reportedly died at a hospital near the damaged nuclear plant after the medical staff abandoned them, according to The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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