New York, NY – A half-century after the enactment of federal occupational health protections for workers, hundreds of workers are still dying “each day from hazardous working conditions,” reports the AFL-CIO in its annual report on safety in the nation’s workplaces. The analysis was released to coincide with the annual commemoration of Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28.
According to the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job-Toll of Neglect, 4,764 workers were killed on the job in 2020, with Latino and Black workers at a greater risk of dying on the job than all workers. An additional estimated 120,000 workers die annually from occupational diseases.
While employers reported nearly 3.2 million work-related injuries and illnesses, the national union’s researchers believe the true toll of work-related injuries and illnesses is between 5.4 million to 8.1 million each year.
“The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous — estimated at $176 billion to $352 billion a year,” according to the AFL-CIO.
The union’s annual worker safety analysis does not include the number of essential workers who died as a consequence of their exposure to COVID on the job.
“There remains no comprehensive national surveillance system to collect case information by industry and occupation, and employer reporting of COVID-19 cases still is mandatory only in a few states with specific standards or orders,” according to the AFL-CIO’s “Death on the Job-Toll of Neglect”.
But the infectious COVID virus was not the only troubling trend the AFL-CIO report found.
“Workplace violence deaths increased to 705 in 2020, while more than 27,000 violence-related lost-time injuries were reported,” according to the union analysis. “392 worker deaths were workplace homicides. Workplace violence is the fourth-leading cause of workplace death overall and the second-leading cause of workplace death for women.”
It continued. “Women workers are at greater risk of violence than men; they suffer seven of every 10 lost-time injuries related to workplace violence, and are 50% more likely to be killed by a relative or domestic partner in the workplace than men.There is no federal OSHA standard to protect workers from workplace violence.”
A HUMAN RIGHT
“Worker safety has been a priority of the AFL-CIO since day one,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters on a April 26 press call. “Workers have spent decades organizing and fighting for safer working conditions. Job safety we believe is a fundamental human right.”
AFL-CIO researchers estimate that since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Mine Safety Act in the 1970s, the lives of 675,000 workers have been saved by worksite and process safety improvements. Yet, despite the progress, Shuler said “too many of our employers don’t keep our workplaces safe and it’s our workers and families that are paying the price.”
“Importantly, the overall toll of deaths reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, 340 workers die each day, does not include workers we’ve lost from COVID or the full extent of those who remain ill with COVID disease because of their job — that’s because we still have no national comprehensive surveillance system to count worker related COVID deaths, hospitalizations and infections,” said Rebecca Reindel, the AFL-CIO’s director of occupational safety and health. “We have very few employers reporting requirements regarding COVID infections restricted to only some health care settings.”
The report sites a joint investigation by the Guardian newspaper and Kaiser Health News that documented more than 3,600 American healthcare worker deaths in the first year of the pandemic from their COVID workplace exposure.
Reindel told reporters that Congress had recently tasked the CDC to “really examine the toll of COVID deaths and infections by occupation and industry” which was significant, she added “because we have not had such a comprehensive report throughout the pandemic.”
FEMALE HEALTHCARE WORKERS HIT HARD
MJ Burke is career healthcare professional based in Indiana with the Veterans Administration and the first executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council. She recounted losing three of her co-workers who died in the first months of 2020 from COVID.
“For someone who has been involved with the labor movement for the last sixteen years and has routinely gone through training, I was quite honestly taken aback about the scene of not having enough PPE, knowing what I know…about airborne hazards and the propaganda being shoved at our community of health care workers,” Burke told reporters.
Burke said the pandemic was particularly hard on her female colleagues who were pregnant when they pandemic hit. “Quite honestly, I don’t know of any pregnant healthcare workers who worked on the inpatient side that I personally knew in Indianapolis that wasn’t infected at some point,” Burke said. “I can tell you why I joined a union. It was really about safety and security of each other…to give equivalency of humans to other humans.”
The AFGE, which is the nation’s largest federal union represents 700,000 workers, estimates it lost at least 600 members to the pandemic and has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of its front line workforce for a federal hazard pay premium of 25 percent of their base pay.
For Isaiah Thomas, an Amazon warehouse worker from Bessemer, Alabama who was also on the AFL-CIO panel, COVID was a major workplace issue. Improving workplace safety for Amazon workers, including increasing their downtime from the company’s rigorous work cycles, has been a top issue in both the Staten Island Amazon and Alabama union drives.
Thomas explained that the COVID rate was “astronomical” in his home state of Alabama but that Amazon did not “contact us workers about who had contracted COVID…so we could actually protect our selves during the pandemic.”
While the AFL-CIO report credited President Biden with taking “important steps” to “protect workers and prioritizing worker protections” it maintained in it’s report that the prior Trump administration had undermined “longstanding workplace safety protections” while totally failed “to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the disparities of those most affected by workplace infection.”
“In the fall of 2019, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began reducing the number of inspections involving significant cases and complex health hazards, a policy that is still in place today,” according to the AFL-CIO report. “In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA was largely absent from workplaces where it has the authority and responsibility to enforce workplace safety laws. While the number of inspectors and inspections have improved in FY 2021, there is much more progress to be made to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels.”
The analysis continued. “The COVID-19 pandemic also brought to light the weaknesses in federal oversight of state OSHA plans. Congress continues to fund job safety at stagnant levels, allowing an OSHA budget that still only amounts to $4.37 to protect each worker covered by the OSH Act.”