Every year on April 28, the unions of the AFL-CIO observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job and to renew our efforts for safe workplaces. This year, the struggle continues to create good jobs in this country that are safe and healthy and pay fair wages and to ensure the freedom of workers to form unions and, through their unions, to speak out and bargain for respect and a better future.
Here are 11 facts about worker safety and health you should know in honor of Workers Memorial Day:
1. In 2013, more than 4,400 workers were killed on the job and more than 50,000 more died from occupational diseases.
2. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly 4 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported. Research indicates that the numbers may be underestimated and may actually be two or three times greater than what BLS reports.
3. Certain occupations have much greater risk than others. These include agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, transportation, warehousing, mining and construction.
4. More than 8 million state and local public employees lack the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections while they face a 58% higher injury and illness rate than private-sector workers.
5. Latino workers have a workplace fatality rate 19% higher than the national average. The majority of these workers are immigrants.
6. There is no federal workplace standard (and few state standards) for workplace violence. Meanwhile there were more than 26,000 workplace injuries related to violence in 2013, including nearly 400 deaths. Women workers in health care and social assistance are most likely to face workplace violence.
7. Workplace suicides, many related to toxic work environments and bullying, increased by 8% in 2013.
8. The Occupational Safety and Health Act is more than 40 years old and is out of date. Millions of workers aren’t covered, workers’ rights are limited and penalties for violating the law are weak.
9. OSHA has fewer than 900 inspectors, meaning they can inspect workplaces, on average, once every 140 years. State OSHA inspectors amount to a little more than 1,000, meaning they can inspect workplaces once every 91 years.
10. Many workers face retaliation at work for raising job safety concerns or reporting injuries.
11. Most workplace chemical hazards are unregulated and the rules in place haven’t been updated since 1971.
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.