Death on the Job

If you were to imagine a bible of occupational safety and health, combined with a review of where we are and a roadmap for the future, you’d have the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report.  Published every year since 1992 for Workers Memorial Day, this report contains every statistic and narrative that every journalists and legislator — state or federal — should have on their bookshelves.

It not only contains data and information on the health and safety of the nation’s workers, but also breaks down the data by state, so that activists, reporters and Congressional representatives can know what’s happening in their neighborhood.

The 2024 edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect was published today. And despite the hundreds of hours of work that’s gone into it by the AFL-CIO’s huge health and safety department (Rebecca L. Reindel and Ayusha Shrestha), you can download a copy of the report for free, here.

State of the Nation’s Workers Heath: Not Great

The bottom line: 690,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the OSH Act.  But it hasn’t been easy:

Over the years, progress has become more challenging, as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. Big corporations and many Republicans have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections. They have used their power and influence to attempt to deregulate the work environment, shift the responsibility to provide safe jobs from employers to individual workers, and undermine the core duties of job safety and health agencies.

This year is an election year, and the report doesn’t pull any punches when describing which candidate would do most to protect workers:

The Biden and Trump administration’s records on worker safety and health differ drastically. The Biden administration’s job safety agencies have had to repair and rebuild after four years of decimation rife with understaffing, repeal of worker safety laws, limits on public access to information and the inability to issue even the most basic of long-overdue protections. Instead, the Biden administration has improved transparency of information about loved ones lost on the job to honor them and to prevent these tragedies for other families, bolstered enforcement initiatives to hold accountable the employers who violate the law and put workers in danger, strengthened policies to protect vulnerable workers with the greatest risks of dying on the job and facing retaliation, and issued milestone regulations to save workers’ lives and improve their livelihoods.

With a better funded agency and more labor-friendly policies, much more could be done to help workers. I have criticized some of the Biden administration’s COVID policies and regulatory strategy, but the accomplishments of this administration are significant.

EPA has finally banned asbestos and MSHA recently issued a rule to protect miners against silica.  OSHA

clarified the rights of workers to choose their own representation during inspections… issued a rule to require large employers to fall in line with other-sized employers on injury reporting to OSHA and anti-retaliation measures for workers who report injuries; and worked across agencies to protect immigrant workers whose employers are involved in a workplace safety and health investigation.

OSHA has made significant progress on a number of important health and safety standards — heat, workplace violence and infectious diseases. Some, like an update of the Process Safety Management standard have languished. But if we’re fortunate enough to have a second Biden term, we should see the issuance of a number of important final standards.

Where We Are

The report details the data that describes the state of workers in this country.

In 2022, 5,486 workers were killed on the job in the United States and an estimated 120,000 workers died from occupational diseases. That means that 344 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions. And things are not getting better: The job fatality rate increased again to 3.7 per 100,000 workers.

Meanwhile, workers of color die on the job at a higher rate: Black and Latino worker job fatality rates are disproportionately high compared with all other workers and are continuing to increase. Black workers’ job fatality rate was the highest it has been in nearly 15 years and  the number and fatality rates of Latino workers climbed in 2022.

OSHA was created to develop and enforce standards that would force employers to provide a safe workplace. But drastic underfunding has kept the agency from adequately fulfilling its mission. Together, federal and state OSHA have only 1,875 inspectors  to inspect the 11.5 million workplaces under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s jurisdiction.

Together, federal and state OSHA have only 1,875 inspectors  to inspect the 11.5 million workplaces under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s jurisdiction.

And things aren’t getting much better. Federal OSHA has 47 fewer inspectors than in FY 2022— only enough to inspect workplaces once every 186 years. State OSHA plans have 51 additional inspectors compared with FY 2022.

This means that there is only one inspector for every 80,014 workers. The current OSHA budget amounts to $3.93 available to protect each worker, significantly less than the price of a Starbucks Cinnamon Caramel Cream Cold Brew (Whatever that is…).

Not only are there too few OSHA inspectors, but even when OSHA manages to get to workplaces to identify hazardous conditions, the fines are far too low to impact all but the smallest employers.

The average penalty for a serious violation was $4,597 for federal OSHA and only $2,406 for OSHA state plans.  More shocking, the median penalty for killing a worker was $14,063 for federal OSHA and only $7,000 for state OSHA plans.

I often say that nothing focuses employers’ minds like the prospect of jail time.  The Occupational Safety and Health Act has provisions for criminal prosecutions — if a workers death results from a willful violation. But since OSHA was founded in 1971, only 137 worker death cases have been criminally prosecuted under the Act.

Where We Need to Go

The Death on the Job report doesn’t just whine about the problems workers face, but also lays out a road map for job safety agency and Congress.

Job safety agencies need to better enforcement the law, provide stronger oversight of OSHA state plans, address the problems faced by Latino, Black, immigrant and aging workers, strengthen anti-retaliation protections and issue standards addressing workplace violence, heat and infectious diseases.

Congress must increase funding and staffing at job safety agencies for both standard-setting and enforcement, pass legislation to speed up issuance of  heat and workplace violence standards, modernize OSHA by passing the Protecting America’s Workers Act,  extend OSHA coverage to public employees and other workers currently excluded from the OSHAct’s coverage,  and strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violations. those who have been injured or made ill because of their jobs.

Congress must also oppose so-called corporate regulatory “reform” initiatives that would make it more difficult—or impossible—for agencies to issue needed standards and improved enforcement.

I’ll stop here.  There is much more to be learned and you can download the entire 244 page report here. You can put it on your (virtual) bookshelf, but believe me, if you’re working to protect workers’ safety and health, it won’t stay on your bookshelf for long.

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