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Sep 23, 2019

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This Is Uncomfortable

Video cameras spread to more workplaces

Mitchell Hartman Jun 29, 2015
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Police departments all over the country are ordering body-cams and dash-cams for their patrol officers these days as they face pressure to monitor how officers treat civilians.

Those tiny video cameras, meanwhile, are spreading into a lot of workplaces that have nothing to do with police officers and guns.

“Hospitals, retail, we’re seeing them in manufacturing, we’re seeing them in every industry,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The cameras are getting better with technological advances, and they’re getting cheaper as more suppliers enter the market. They can be mounted on a dashboard or a helmet, an office door or in the ceiling of a factory. And Bronfenbrenner says companies in industries such as fast food and warehousing sometimes install them where workers congregate to monitor and intimidate union organizers. Plus, she says, “when they’re in the service sector, they’re violating not only the privacy of the worker, they’re violating the privacy of the customer.”

Video monitoring can benefit management and workers, says social psychologist Jack Aiello at Rutgers University — especially in workplaces that require high security, like food and pharmaceutical factories, power plants and commuter trains. “The cameras might be extremely effective to protect goods and people in circumstances where there might be abuse or theft.”

Aiello says so far there aren’t many legal restrictions to videotaping at work. He was an expert witness in a case where workers at a power company were videotaped in a locker room.

“What it did was to completely undermine the relationship that they had with their organization,” he says. “They became paranoid, and some of them were looking behind mirrors and pictures in their houses. People start to feel a Big Brother mentality, that somebody is over my shoulder all the time. And that creates stress.”

Lew Maltby at the National Workrights Institute says video monitoring shouldn’t be over used. But he says it has a place — to protect people in work settings where they may be vulnerable. For instance, video cameras could be used to protect civilians from racially biased police, the elderly from neglectful nurses, and young kids from abusive teachers.

“It’s oppressive to have to work on camera every minute of the day,” Maltby says. “It’s kind of creepy to tape teachers. But there may be a legitimate reason for it. How else are you going to know if the teachers are treating the children the way they should?”

In a novel application, mounted video cameras are being used to make sure fishermen comply with strict rules on catch and by-catch (seafood that’s accidentally caught in nets).

Brad Pettinger has been fishing for groundfish, salmon and abalone off the Pacific Coast for more than 40 years out of Brookings, Oregon, and he directs the Oregon Trawl Commission. He’s installing high-resolution cameras on his boat this summer. “There’ll be sensors on the winches, so when you kick on the hydraulics to set the net, the camera comes on, and it stays on until the vessel returns to port,” he says.

Pettinger says the cameras will take some getting used to. They’ll capture the whole deck: dying fish, tangled nets, cursing fishermen. He says he’s willing to sacrifice some privacy on his vessel to make sure everyone is following the same rules to protect the fishery.

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