This 2015 edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect marks the 24th year the AFL-CIO has produced a report on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers.
More than 510,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which promised workers in this country the right to a safe job. Since that time, workplace safety and health conditions have improved, but too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death.
Many preventable workplace disasters do not make the headlines, and kill and disable thousands of workers each year.
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The High Toll of Job Injuries, Illnesses and Deaths
In 2013, 4,585 workers were killed on the job in the United States, and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases, resulting in a loss of 150 workers each day from hazardous working conditions.
Nearly 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but many injuries are not reported. The true toll is likely two to three times greater, or 7.6 million to 11.4 million injuries each year.
North Dakota continues to stand out as an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work. For the third year in a row, North Dakota had the highest job fatality rate in the nation. The state’s job fatality rate of 14.9 per 100,000 was more than four times the national average and its fatality rate and number of deaths have more than doubled since 2007.
Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of job fatalities. The fatality rate among Latino workers increased in 2013 to 3.9 per 100,000 workers, up from a rate of 3.7 per 100,000 in 2012. At the same time, the number and rate of fatalities for all other races declined or stayed the same. There were 817 Latino workers killed on the job in 2013, up from 748 deaths in 2012. Sixty-six percent of the fatalities (542 deaths) in 2013 were among workers born outside the United States. There was a sharp increase in Latino deaths among grounds maintenance workers. Specifically, deaths related to tree trimming and pruning doubled among Latino workers since 2012, and 87% of the landscaping deaths among Latino workers were immigrants.
Workplace violence continues to be the second leading cause of job fatalities in the United States (after transportation incidents), responsible for 773 worker deaths and 26,520 lost-time injuries in 2013. Women workers suffered 70% of the lost-time injuries related to workplace violence.
Job Safety Oversight and Enforcement
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state OSHA plans have a total of 1,882 inspectors (847 federal and 1,035 state inspectors) to inspect the 8 million workplaces under the OSH Act’s jurisdiction. This means there are enough inspectors for federal OSHA to inspect workplaces once every 140 years, on average, and for state OSHA plans to inspect workplaces once every 91 years.
The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 71,695 workers.OSHA penalties have increased under the Obama administration, but still are too low to deter violations. The average penalty for a serious violation of the law in FY 2014 was $1,972 for federal OSHA and $1,043 for the state plans.
Penalties for worker deaths continue to be minimal. For FY 2014, the median penalty in fatality cases investigated by federal OSHA was $5,050, and for the OSHA state plans the median penalty was $4,438.
Criminal penalties under the OSHA law are weak. They are limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker death, resulting in misdemeanors. Since 1970, only 88 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 100 months in jail. During this time there were more than 390,000 worker deaths.
After eight years of neglect and inaction under the Bush administration, progress in issuing new needed protections under the Obama administration 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.
In 2013, this de facto regulatory freeze began to thaw. The proposed tougher silica rule that had been blocked by OMB for two-and-one-half years was released. When finalized,this new rule will prevent 700 deaths and 1,600 cases of silica-related disease each year.
In April 2014, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued an important final standard to reduce coal miners’ exposure to respirable dust to help finally end black lung disease.
But many rules are long overdue, including OSHA rules on confined space entry in construction, beryllium, combustible dust and infectious diseases, and MSHA’s rule on proximity detection for mobile mining equipment.
The Republican majority in Congress is trying to stop all new protections and prevent these important measures from becoming law. It is critical that the Obama administration finalize the OSHA silica standard and other key rules as soon as possible so the president can veto any legislation designed to delay or overturn these measures.
Much Work Remains to Be Done
Very simply, workers need more job safety and health protection.
Funding and staffing at both job safety agencies should be increased.
Enhanced protections, mandatory standards and greater oversight are needed to protect workers from ergonomic hazards, infectious diseases, chemical exposures and workplace violence.
The serious safety and health problems faced by Latino and immigrant workers must be given increased attention.
The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention.
The widespread problem of injury underreporting must be addressed.
The OSH Act’s whistleblower and anti-retaliation provisions are too weak to provide adequate protection to workers who try to exercise their legal rights and must be strengthened.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act is now more than 40 years old and is out of date.Congress should pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act to extend the law’s coverage to workers currently excluded, strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violations, enhance anti-discrimination protections, and strengthen the rights of workers, unions and victims.
Improvements in the Mine Safety and Health Act are needed to give MSHA more authority to enhance enforcement against repeated violators and to shut down dangerous mines.
The nation must renew the commitment to protect workers from injury, disease and death and make this a high priority. We must demand that employers meet their responsibilities to protect workers and hold them accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America’s workers be fulfilled.
[Read the full report: Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2015.]