workplace death covid

Good news! According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020 (also known as the year of COVID) was a great year for worker safety.

According to the 2020 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), released today, “There were 4,764 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2020, a 10.7-percent decrease from 5,333 in 2019.”  That’s the lowest number since 2013!!

And if you only read the first few paragraphs and charts, you’d actually believe that 2020 a great year for workers. Time to declare victory and go home.

But not so fast.  Recork the Champagne.  One detail the BLS failed to look at — a failure only mentioned below the main headlines at the bottom of the first page of the press release —  was worker deaths due to COVID-19.

According to BLS:

CFOI reports fatal workplace injuries only. These may include fatal workplace injuries complicated by an illness such as COVID-19. Fatal workplace illnesses not precipitated by an injury are not in scope for CFOI. CFOI does not report any illness related information, including COVID-19.

That means if you were so sick with COVID that you got dizzy and fell off a ladder, your death was counted. Otherwise, no.

What we are viewing here is a tragedy laid upon a tragedy: the thousands of workers who died bravely working through the greatest pandemic in American history are essentially invisible.

In other words, removing the bureaucratese, what we are viewing here is a tragedy laid upon a tragedy: the thousands of workers who died bravely working through the greatest pandemic in American history are essentially invisible.

Why Do the Numbers Look Low

So why were the workplace fatality numbers down? Because there was so little work in 2020.

There were far fewer workers working in the most dangerous occupations such as construction and transportation. As I predicted last month when BLS released its report of occupational injuries and illnesses, “due to COVID-related shutdowns, it is highly likely that for the first time in many years, BLS will report a decrease in work-related deaths.  Despite the fact that more work-related deaths occurred in 2020 than any year in recent US history, most COVID-related workplace deaths will be officially invisible.”

Of course, “essential workers,” doing the most dangerous jobs during the height of the pandemic before vaccines were available were not so lucky: the rate for Hispanic workers went up from 4.2 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2019 to 4.5 in 2020.  The share of Hispanic or Latino workers killed on the job also continued to grow, increasing to 22.5% in 2020 from 20.4% in 2019.

As the AFL-CIO noted in their press release that these “essential workers” died disproportionately last year.

Workers deemed essential in 2020 had no choice but to show up in person, risking their lives, and continued to disproportionately bear the brunt of workplace fatalities. The racial disparities are stark: The job fatality rates for Hispanic or Latino workers and Black workers continue to be higher than the overall rate at 4.5 and 3.5 per 100,000 workers, respectively, and Latino workers now account for a larger percentage of all worker fatalities than in 2019.

How Many Workers Died and Where? Who Knows?

We have very little information on how many workers died of work-related COVID-19 infections in most occupations. The ones with the best numbers are in health care and meatpacking.

Health Care Workers

We have a more accurate idea of how many health care workers died from COVID-19 than any other occupation, but even these numbers are grossly incomplete.  CDC reports at total of 3031 health care workers total died of COVID, since the beginning of the pandemic, but admits that death status is available for less than two-thirds of total reported cases.  The extent of the undercount can be seen by the fact that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which requires staff and resident case and fatality reporting from long term nursing care establishments, reports that 2157 COVID-related deaths just among long term care nursing home staff in establishments that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding .

The 2157 is from the beginning of COVID until this month.  In 2020, CMS reported around 1300 deaths of long term care staff. Had those been counted, they would have comprised over 27% of total workplace deaths for 2020.

And we have other indications that there is a huge problem in healthcare. Last month, BLS released workplace injury and illness numbers for 2020. That data is notoriously undercounted. Nevertheless

According to BLS, nursing assistants led the occupations of workers who missed work due to work-related illnesses:  They had 96,480 days-away-from-work (DAFW) cases, which was a 249.7 percent increase from 2019. Registered nurse cases increased by 290.8 percent to 78,740 cases.  Their incidence rates also climbed in 2020.  Nursing assistants, registered nurses, and licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses had notable increases in their DAFW incidence rates in 2020. “Nursing assistants, specifically, had a DAFW incidence rate of 1,023.8 per 10,000 FTE workers in 2020, an increase from 283.5 in 2019.”

Meatpacking Workers

A recent report by the House Select Sub-Committee on the Corona Virus Crisis last month revealed that:

Newly obtained documents from five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates , which represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States—JBS USA Food Company (JBS), Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company, LLC (National Beef)—reveal that during the first year of the pandemic, at least 59,000 employees of these five meatpacking companies contracted the coronavirus—almost triple the 22,700 infections previously estimated for these companies—while at least 269 of these companies’ employees died.

According to testimony from Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and a former senior official at OSHA during the Obama Administration “More workers have died from COVID-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the last 15 years.”

“More workers have died from COVID-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the last 15 years.”  — Debbie Berkowitz

What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us

The BLS is correct that in the narrow confines of what CFOI is supposed to do (count workplace injuries only), disease-related deaths –including those from COVID-19 — are invisible.  We often cite BLS in claiming that 14 workers are killed in the job every day — 5333 in 2019.  That’s a lot,  but the total number of work-related deaths, included diseases caused by chemicals like asbestos, silica, various solvents and other communicable diseases, are likely twenty times that number.

The AFL-CIO notes in its annual Death on the Job report that most chronic workplace illness-related deaths

are not detected until years after workers have been exposed to toxic chemicals, and because occupational illnesses often are misdiagnosed and poorly tracked. There is no national comprehensive surveillance system for occupational illnesses. In total, about 275 workers die each day due to job injuries and illnesses.

There is no doubt that we are now experiencing the greatest workplace death toll in modern American history due to COVID-19.  We have much to learn about the real extent of that toll and how to prevent these deaths — not only for this pandemic, but for those yet to come.

It is nothing short of criminal that neither the BLS nor the CDC currently have any process for assessing the impact COVID-19 on this nation’s workers — nor do they have any plans to develop such a system.   

The problem is not an easy one to solve:  The CDC does not require COVID death reports to include the occupation of the deceased, nor do most state reporting systems. And there is no good process for determining if a worker’s death is occupationally-related or community-related.

Nevertheless, It is nothing short of criminal that neither the BLS nor the CDC currently have any process for assessing the impact COVID-19 on this nation’s workers — nor do they have any plans to develop such a system.

The failure of BLS to include any COVID-related deaths — as well as the reason that workplace deaths decreased last year — should have been in the first paragraph of the first page, not the last.

This lack of information is doing real damage already. OSHA standards to protect workers have been beaten down (except for health care workers) largely due to political pressure — and lack of good data on the impact of COVID-19 on non-healthcare workers. Even vaccine/testing mandates and other worker protection requirements are losing in court — largely due to the lack of good data on the extent to which COVID-19 has been transmitted at work.

There is language in the FY 2022 House Appropriations Report that would require CDC to study the impact of COVID-19 on workers, including disparate impact by race and ethnicity. Passage would be a major step forward. Otherwise, the workers of this country — many of whom risked their lives going to work every day during the height of the pandemic — are facing a national failure to learn the lessons of this pandemic, lessons that could save thousands of workers’ lives when the next pandemic — or the next variant — hits.

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