Death on the Job Report: One Worker Dies Every Other Hour

             WASHINGTON –Seven days a week, 365 days a year, weekends and holidays included, a worker dies on the job slightly more than once every other hour.

That’s the stark data from Death on the Job 2014, the AFL-CIO’s 23rd consecutive report on job safety, including fatalities, illnesses and injuries, in the U.S.

Federal job death, injury and illness data from 2012, the most recent year available, show that 4,628 workers were killed on the job that year, down slightly from the year before.  That’s 13 workers every 24 hours, the report says.  For every 100,000 workers, 3.4 of them died on the job that year, a rate virtually unchanged since 2009.

Another 13,090 workers were injured or became ill from their jobs daily in 2012, the report says.  That’s three workers injured every two hours, round-the-clock, year-round, calculations show.  And that’s not counting the estimated 50,000 workers who die later, from diseases such as black lung or silicosis, that they contracted on their jobs over the years. 

“The number is still too high, and that’s unacceptable,” Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s veteran Director of Occupational Safety and Health, told a phone press conference on May 8.

Woman workers should be particularly concerned about workplace violence, the report, issued just after Workers Memorial Day, says.  Two-thirds of the 24,610 workers who were victims of on-the-job violence in 2012 were women.  Another 803 workers, of both sexes, died violently.  Of the 351 women who died, 28% were murdered, as were 9% of the 4,277 men.

            “Workplace violence is the second-leading cause of death on the job,” Seminario said.  “It’s even ahead of falls” and trails only vehicle accidents.  “Deaths come from homicides but injuries,” especially to female workers, “come from clients and patients” in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and in social services.

The report declares there have been improvements in job safety and health since unions pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Act through Congress in 1970.  “More than 492,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since its passage,” the report says, and on-the-job fatalities have dropped by 81%.  But the report says much more must be done.

“It’s an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can only provide oversight,” Seminario says.  “And union density and union power makes a huge difference in how these problems are addressed.”

The fed’s report lauds the Democratic Obama administration for improving job safety enforcement, but chastises it in the area of tightening safety standards.   “Progress in issuing new needed protections has been slow and disappointing.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has blocked and delayed important rules. Since 2009, only four major final OSHA safety and health standards have been issued,” it says.

“The regulatory process is incredibly slow and incredibly difficult,” Seminario says.  “We’d hoped Obama would have moved faster.”

That started to change last year, the report notes.  OMB stopped blocking a rule to cut worker exposure to silica.  Silica exposure leads to silicosis and to cancers.  Cutting exposure will prevent 700 deaths and 1,600 cases of disease each year, OSHA says.

“We’ve known about the dangers of silica for decades,” Seminario says.  “That rule has been 17 years in the making, and an estimated 12,000 workers have died because it hasn’t been put in place.”

And in April, the Mine Safety and Health Administration “issued an important final standard to reduce coal miners’ exposure to repairable dust to help finally end black lung disease, the report notes.

“But many rules are long overdue, including OSHA rules on confined space entry in construction, beryllium, combustible dust and infectious diseases, and MSHA rules on proximity detection.  The time for the Obama administration to act on these rules is running out,” the report warns.

And for the last several years, it adds, there’s a second political threat to worker safety and health: Congressional Republicans and their budget-cutting, aided and abetted by business’ opposition to any and all OSHA rules.  The GOP, the report says, has substituted ideology for science, and safety.

OSHA and state OSHAs are still woefully understaffed, the report points out: There’s one state or federal OSHA inspector for every 67,847 workers, and 1,955 safety and health inspectors – state and federal combined – for the nation’s eight million workplaces.  That means an average state inspector would get to a workplace once every 79 years and an average federal inspector, once every 139 years.

And OSHA’s low fines, which haven’t risen in decades, do little to deter law-breaking employers.  “When a typical worker was killed, in a typical case, the fine was $5,600,” Seminario notes.  Average fines for on-the-job deaths in 2013 ranged from $27,063 for each of 20 Minnesota workers killed to zero for the two who died in Vermont.

Several industries stand out for their injury and fatality rates.  Besides perennial leaders – construction and nursing homes – the report singles out oil and gas extraction.  In 2012, that industry drove up North Dakota’s fatality rate to an all-time record rate for one state in OSHA’s numbers, 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, more than five times the national fatality rate.  North Dakota has seen an oil and gas boom and its death rates have skyrocketed since 2007.

“Escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention.  Without action, the workplace fatality crisis in this industry only will get worse as production intensifies and expands,” the report says.  That industry, which is largely non-union – unlike refinery operation or construction – needs special OSHA, industry and union attention, especially as the U.S. takes more and more oil out of the ground, Seminario adds.

The report, which also includes state-by-state and industry-by-industry data, had several other recommendations for federal action.  They include:

* “Remove the OMB blockade of new safety and health rules and instead actively support these measures.”  It also says OSHA should make the new silica standard final and move fast on standards to cut worker exposure to flammable dust and infectious diseases.  “Time is running out” for the Obama administration to do so, the report warns.

* Increase enforcement “particularly for employers who repeatedly violate the law.”  The Mine Safety and Health Administration should get more power to shut down dangerous mines.

* Increase money and staffing of both job safety agencies to increase oversight of workplaces and “timely and effective enforcement.”  Fines, now at 1970 levels, must increase, as the labor-backed Protect America’s Workers Act proposes, along with making fatal on-the-job accidents felonies, not misdemeanors.   And whistleblower protections must be strengthened, as both unions and OSHA administrator Dr. David Michaels advocate.

“The widespread problem of injury underreporting must be addressed and employer policies and practices that discourage the reporting of injuries through discipline or other means must be prohibited,” the report adds.  And “OSHA needs to keep up with new hazards that face workers as workplaces, and the nature of work, change.”

-PAI