At The Huffington Post, Alissa Scheller has an article that includes nine charts that show very clearly the key takeaways from the AFL-CIO’s recent Death on the Job report. These charts explore the issue of who the 4,600 who die on the job each year are and what is contributing to their deaths.
I work at a hospital as an office clerk. We currently have an interim director. There are many changes happening in our department, which has been stressful, but I’ve been “rolling with the punches.” Last week our director had a meeting in which he stated that we are not allowed to have water to drink at our check-in reception area per hospital policy. This has never been a rule in the past. While this probably would not be an issue normally, I take certain medications that require me to drink plenty of water. I went to see my doctor and got a note saying that I could have water at my desk. Now I’m worried that if I give my director the note, I will be on his “bad side” or be labeled a troublemaker. What should I do?
— Not a Camel, Iowa
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), all workplaces must provide drinkable water to employees, but that doesn’t mean that workers have a right to drink water at their desk.
While requirements for breaks while working to eat lunch, use the restroom, etc. vary state by state—from “no breaks for you” (which, unfortunately, is the case in Iowa) to minimum standards such as a 30-minute meal break and paid rest periods in some states—your health condition could offer you additional protection. Your health condition may be serious enough to be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and if so, your employer may be required to provide you with a reasonable accommodation to allow you to perform your job. Health conditions that constitute a “disability” under the ADA and the type of accommodations that are “reasonable” are determined on a case-by-case basis, but more information can be found here.
Even with protections in place for individuals who have health conditions, you’re smart to consider how your employer will react to you. The first thing to consider is whether to involve another co-worker. Is there anyone else with similar needs or concerns about access to drinking water, breaks or the like? If so, try to meet with him or her first and see if he or she will agree to go with you when you talk with your boss. A larger group would be even better. That way, it’s not just about you, but about the quality of everyone’s workplace. Not only are you less likely to be singled out, but the law provides additional protections from retaliation when two or more employees join together. This is called “protected concerted activity.”
Still, your approach matters. With another co-worker or in a group, strike a collaborative tone when speaking to your director. You could say that you understand what the rule is, but that a couple of you—or many of you—feel like the workplace would be better for everyone if you knew that when it was necessary, as in your situation, you could expect some flexibility to go to the water fountain, break area or restroom to take medication or address personal needs.
Getting together with your co-workers isn’t just about protecting yourself from retaliation. It’s also how you can shape your workplace to be happier and healthier for everyone who works there. I’m for raising the bar for everyone. Don’t you think we should set our sights higher than just meeting the minimum standards of the ADA?
In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.
In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:
Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.
While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.
There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.
In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”
What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.
BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.
While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.
Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.
With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.
But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:
Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.
It’s Workers Memorial Day—a time to honor, or at least stop and think about, the workers who have lost their lives on the job. While the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) has greatly decreased the number of workplace deaths and injuries in the 40 years since it was passed, there are still too many.
Big explosions and disasters draw headlines and attention, but many more workers lose their lives in ways that don’t get widespread notice—but are no less painful for their families and friends.
In 2009, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,340 workers were killed on the job—an average of 12 workers every day—and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but this number understates the problem. The true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater—about 8 million to12 million job injuries and illnesses each year.
The risks are not evenly distributed. Workers are much more likely to be killed in some states than others:
The risk of job fatalities and injuries varies widely from state to state, in part due to the mix of industries. Montana led the country with the highest fatality rate (10.8 per 100,000), followed by Louisiana and North Dakota (7.2), Wyoming (6.8) and Nebraska (6.1). The lowest state fatality rate (0.9 per 100,000) was reported in New Hampshire, followed by Rhode Island (1.4), Arizona (1.8), Massachusetts (1.8) and Delaware (1.8). This compares with a preliminary national fatality rate of 3.3 per 100,000 workers in 2009.
And Latino workers have an increased risk of fatalities: 3.7 per 100,000 workers as opposed to that national rate of 3.3.
The penalties for violations and fatalities are too low to deter employers from risking their workers’ lives:
For FY 2010, the median initial total penalty in fatality cases investigated by federal OSHA was $7,000, with a median penalty after settlement of $5,600.
That’s in cases where someone died. The average penalty for a serious violation of the law just on its own was $1,052 for federal OSHA.
Penalties also vary state by state:
Oregon had the lowest median current penalty for fatality investigations, with $1,500 in penalties assessed, followed by Wyoming ($2,063) and Kentucky ($2,275). New Hampshire had the highest median current penalty ($142,000), followed by Minnesota ($26,050) and Missouri ($21,000).
Criminal investigations? Forget about it:
Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail. During this time there were more than 360,000 worker deaths. By comparison, in FY 2010 there were 346 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 289 defendants charged, resulting in 72 years of jail time and $41 million in penalties—more cases, fines and jail time in one year than during OSHA’s entire history.
On Workers Memorial Day, the best way to honor workers who have lost their lives on the job is to fight to prevent future workplace fatalities. That means more funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. More inspectors checking to make sure workplaces are safe, not less. More prosecutions and higher penalties, to give employers added reason to think twice about committing safety violations (and how sad is it that workers’ lives are not enough reason). And passing the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PDF) to update OSHA and fill some of its gaps.
Six minutes is a little longer of a video than most of us watch all the way through. But on Workers Memorial Day, let’s take that long to hear the story of one man’s death, the unsafe workplace that led to it, and the grossly inadequate penalty the employer paid for his death.
Since 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death. In recent weeks and months there have been a series of workplace tragedies that have heightened concerns—the coal mine disaster at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, an explosion a few days earlier at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed six workers, and the explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut in February that also claimed the
lives of six workers.
In 2008, 5,214 workers were killed on the job—an average of 14 workers every day—and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.6 million work-related injuries were reported, but this number understates the problem. The true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater—about 9 to 14 million job injuries each year.
The risk of job fatalities and injuries varies widely from state to state, in part due to the mix of industries. Wyoming led the country with the highest fatality rate (11.6 per 100,000), followed by Alaska (9.9), Montana (8.3), North Dakota (7.8) and South Dakota (6.9). The lowest state fatality rate (1.0 per 100,000) was reported in New Hampshire, followed by Rhode Island (1.2), Connecticut (1.6), Massachusetts (2.1) and Maryland (2.1). This compares with a national fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2008.
Decades of struggle by workers and their unions have resulted in significant improvements in working conditions. But the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths remains enormous. Each year, thousands of workers are killed and millions more are injured or diseased because of their jobs. The unions of the AFL-CIO remember these workers on April 28, Workers Memorial Day.
Workplace fatalities aren’t just sad accidents. They’re products of a system in which employers have little incentive to focus on safety.
When workers are killed on the job, the report notes that employers face “incredibly weak penalties.” The median penalty in 2009 was just $5,000 in fatality cases investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In 2009, when an employer was cited for a serious safety violation, the average OSHA penalty was just $965.
In addition, the report says OSHA’s inspector workforce is “woefully inadequate,” with just 2,218 inspectors to monitor the 8 million workplaces that fall under OSHA’s jurisdictions.