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Dying for Work

Fifteen workers in the United States die every day due to job injuries, according to “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” a report issued by the AFL-CIO in April. The report criticizes the Bush administration for allowing meaningful worker-safety measures to stagnate, resulting in extreme under-enforcement of workplace safety standards.

In 2007, the most recent year for which job fatality data is available, 5,657 workers died as a result of injuries sustained on the job, according to the report. This total was a slight decline from 2006. Employers reported more than four million work-related injuries and illnesses, but “Death on the Job” documents vast employer underreporting of workplace injuries, and estimates that a more accurate number would be 8 million to 12 million injuries and illnesses a year. The direct and indirect economic costs of disabling injuries and illnesses run between $145 billion and $290 billion a year.

“Eight years of inaction and neglect by the Bush administration on major hazards and increased emphasis on employer assistance and voluntary compliance has left workers’ safety and health in serious danger,” the report states.

The largest number of fatal work injuries occurred in construction, with 1,204 deaths. Transportation and warehousing had the next most fatal injuries, followed by forestry, fishing and hunting.

“Unfortunately, as demonstrated by recent job safety disasters, such as the Sago mine explosion, the Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion and construction crane collapses in New York and Miami, which claimed dozens and dozens of lives, too many workers remain at risk and face death, injury or disease as a result of their jobs,” the report states. [See “The System Implodes: The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008,” Multinational Monitor, Nov/Dec 2008.]

The manufacturing sector accounted for the largest percentage of non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses, with 18.8 percent of the 4 million reported injuries and illnesses. The health care and social assistance industries accounted for 16.6 percent of injuries and illnesses, followed by the retail industry at 15 percent.

The under-reporting of injuries and illnesses is a significant problem, according to the report. Referring to employer-reported injuries and illnesses, William Kojola, industrial hygienist at the AFL-CIO, says, “Those numbers are pretty much fictitious.” One study cited in the report found that government counts of occupational injury and illness underestimate incidence by as much as 69 percent. “This is an issue of research, but it’s also an issue of what policies and programs employers are putting in place that work as a disincentive for workers to report illnesses,” Kojola says.

Those policies and programs include employers implementing programs that discipline or fire workers if they report injuries, or incentive programs where workers are given cash awards or vacations for having a low injury and illness rate, according to Kojola. “These are really insidious programs that drive these illnesses and injuries underground,” he says.

However, the report commends recent initiatives by the House Education and Labor Committee, which held an oversight hearing on the issue, and the Senate Labor Appropriations Subcommittee, which provided funding for several initiatives to address underreporting problems, including $1 million for an enhanced OSHA recordkeeping enforcement program.

The report remains highly critical of OSHA’s job safety enforcement and coverage, due in part to a lack of sufficient resources. “A combination of too few OSHA inspectors and low penalties makes the threat of an OSHA inspection hollow for too many employers,” the report states. “More than 8.8 million workers still are without OSHA coverage. OSHA’s resources remain inadequate to meet the challenge of ensuring safe working conditions for American’s workers.”

There is currently one OSHA inspector for every 66,258 workers, according to the report. At these staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 137 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once, the report finds, a significant decrease in protection from 1992 — the year the AFL-CIO began its annual reports — when federal OSHA could inspect all workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years.

A March report by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General found that OSHA’s inadequacies may have contributed to workplace fatalities. At 45 of the worksites where OSHA oversight and follow up on safety violations was deficient — and where proper enforcement actions may have diminished workplace hazards — 58 workers were subsequently killed in the course of their employment.

The AFL-CIO report also finds OSHA penalties for safety violations and worker fatalities shockingly low. In fiscal year 2008, “serious” workplace safety violations — meaning the violation posed a substantial probability of death or serious injury — carried an average penalty of only $921.

“That’s a trivial amount,” Kojola says. “It doesn’t act as much of an incentive for an employer to comply with the standards. And when it comes to fatalities, the situation is far worse.” The average total penalty for fatality cases was just $11,311. In Utah, the average penalty was a mere $1,106.

“Where is the incentive? It’s petty cash penalties for situations where a worker is killed from a willful violation,” Kojola says.

In addition, criminal prosecutions resulting from worker fatalities are exceedingly rare, according to the report. In most cases they are labeled misdemeanors, and in 2008, only two cases were prosecuted.

“The criminal penalty provisions of the [Occupational Safety and Health Act] are woefully inadequate,” the report states. “Criminal enforcement is limited to those cases where a willful violation results in a worker’s death or where false statements in required reporting are made. The maximum penalty is six months in jail.”

But Kojola is optimistic workplace safety enforcement will improve under the Obama administration. The administration has already taken significant and beneficial steps, he says, including expediting the development of a standard on diacetyl, a chemical in the flavoring for buttered popcorn which can cause a serious and fatal lung disease when inhaled by factory workers.

The Obama administration also issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on the hazards of combustible dust — a measure the Bush administration refused to take even after 14 workers were killed by a combustible dust explosion at a sugar refinery in Georgia.

“Already, within the first couple months, [the Obama administration] has taken more decisive steps than the Bush administration did in eight years,” Kojola says. The Obama proposed budget released in May allocated OSHA a $51 million increase over last year.

— Jennifer Wedekind

Multinational Monitor

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