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AFL-CIO Warns: Weakening OSHA Will Kill Workers

May 7, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

Washington, DC – If you’re a 58-year-old Latino construction worker in North Dakota or Wyoming, your life is in danger.

The AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” report, released April 26, found that North Dakota and Wyoming had by far the highest rates of fatal workplace injuries, with 12.5 deaths per 100,000 workers in North Dakota and 12 in Wyoming—more than three times the national average of 3.4, and far above third-ranked Montana. Donald Trump’s “assault on regulatory protections,” it says, is likely to make that worse. 

Over the last 10 years, the report said, the number of on-the-job deaths has declined significantly, from 5,840 in 2006 to 4,836 in 2015, with more than 40% from “roadway incidents.” But once the 50,000 to 60,000 workers who died from occupational diseases are added, that means hazardous working conditions kill an average of 150 people a day.

“Chronic occupational diseases receive less attention, because most are not detected for years after workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, and occupational illnesses are often misdiagnosed and poorly tracked,” the report said.

Construction work accounted for the most fatal injuries, with 937 workers killed in 2015. Both the number and rate of deaths increased for the second year in a row. Agriculture, fishing, and forestry was the most dangerous sector, however, with a fatality rate of 22.8 per 100,000 workers—and almost six times that in logging, the most dangerous occupation. Transportation and warehousing ranked second in both the number of deaths and the rate.

Older workers are also at high risk. More than one-third of workers killed on the job in 2015 were 55 or older. 

The number of deaths among Latino workers jumped by 99, from 804 in 2014 to 903. Two-thirds were immigrants, mainly from Mexico. Overall, 943 immigrant workers were killed on the job—the highest since 2007.

While 93% of the workers killed on the job were men, workplace violence is a bigger risk for women. More than two-thirds of the 26,000 people injured badly enough to miss work were female.

On the brighter side, the number of deaths dropped significantly in mining and oil and gas extraction, still among the most dangerous industries. In mining, both the number of deaths and the fatality rate hit record lows in 2015 and 2016. The number of deaths in oil and gas extraction fell from 144 in 2014 to 89 in 2015.

The safest states, with death rates of less than 2 per 100,000 workers, were Rhode Island and Delaware, with Massachusetts, Washington, and California slightly above 2. But militantly anti-union South Carolina saw a 70% increase in workplace deaths, with the 117 workers killed the most since 2008.

Nearly 3.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported. But “underreporting is widespread,” the report says. As many as two-thirds of workplace injuries, it estimated, are neither reported to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Musculoskeletal disorders, such as back pain and carpal-tunnel syndrome, account for about one-third of the injuries reported. By far the highest rate came in air transportation, but the most severe problems—causing workers to miss a median of two months of workdays—came among messengers, miners, and telecommunications workers.

OSHA, the report estimated, has saved more than 550,000 workers’ lives. When the agency was established in 1971 under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the workplace death rate was more than five times what it is today, at 18 per 100,000. But it has long struggled with understaffing, and has had its budget more or less frozen for three years. The Trump administration, the report warns, is likely to make that situation much worse.

“The Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress have launched a major assault on regulatory protections,” it said. “They have moved aggressively to roll back regulations and block new protections. Agency budgets and programs are on the chopping block. Worker protections are threatened, and workers’ safety and health are in danger.”

The administration has already repealed Obama administration rules that clarify how employers have to maintain accurate records of injuries and illnesses for five years, and require companies seeking federal contracts to disclose safety and health and labor violations. It has also delayed the enforcement of limits on exposure to silica dust and beryllium. The report estimates that the silica rule would prevent more than 600 deaths and 1,000 cases of silicosis each year.

The administration’s proposed budget would cut Department of Labor funding by 21%, at a time when OSHA’s resources “still are too few and declining.” There are only 1,838 inspectors (815 federal and 1,023 state) to inspect the 8 million workplaces under its jurisdiction. In 1975, when there were less than half as many, there were 1,102 federal inspectors. That jurisdiction also does not cover 8 million state and local government workers in 23 states, including 1.6 million in Texas and 900,000 in Florida, nor workers classified as independent contractors.

According to the report, the number of federal OSHA safety inspections has declined by 25% in the last seven years, from 34,353 in fiscal year 2010 to 25,704 in 2016. Virtually all that decline came in construction, where the number of inspections fell by 36%, to 15,610. The agency issued more than 96,000 violations in 2010, and less than 60,000 in 2016.

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