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.
Why do we have ongoing problems with mines, oil spills, and problems with nuclear power plants? The sad, simple truth is that US regulatory agencies are failing us. From the NY Times:
Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.
The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.
Relying on the oil industry to police itself is akin to relying on your five year old to voluntarily keep his hand out of the cookie jar.
Far from being reliable BP fought safety measures at every opportunity:
In a letter sent last year to the Department of the Interior, BP objected to what it called “extensive, prescriptive regulations” proposed in new rules to toughen safety standards. “We believe industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…continue to be very successful.”
Before every shift worked in an underground coal mine, coal operators are supposed to check for safety problems. Violations are to be marked with a “danger” sign. No one is supposed to go to work until the violations are fixed.
At least that’s what federal mine safety law has said since 1969, when Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.
But since 1992, that’s not what the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has required. That year, the first Bush administration weakened MSHA regulations, requiring mine safety checks to look for violations only if they posed an immediate hazard to miners.
A Congressional hearing on the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine will be held later this month:
The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing this month in Beckley, W.Va., to examine the April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29.
The committee, led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., will hear testimony from family members of the miners who died in the blast, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. The hearing is scheduled for May 24 at 9 a.m. at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Beckley, which is about an hour east of the mine in Montcoal.
The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the explosion last month in Washington, focusing on possible changes to mine safety laws and enforcement by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is charged with enforcing regulations. Here’s a particularly grim commentary:
A top federal mine safety official said Tuesday that existing laws and regulations have not been properly enforced but pledged that his agency will now use all its powers after the West Virginia mine disaster that killed 29 people.
Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, told a Senate committee that the Mine Safety and Health Administration will start using its power to immediately shut down mines engaging in unsafe behavior.
Main said the powers have existed for decades but were never used.
How many workers have died as a result?
The aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, VT has been in the news over the last few months because of a radioactive tritium leak. Entergy, the owner of the plant first denied there were underground pipes at the plant. From the Times Argus:
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, told reporters at the Statehouse Friday that this week’s revelation that the facility does indeed have underground pipes containing radioactive tritium – a fact Yankee officials earlier denied – “threatens the level of trust that Vermonters have in Entergy to provide accurate information about anything.”
“The representations made by Entergy were clearly wrong,” Smith said. “They told us that there was no radioactive material flowing through those pipes … that was untrue.”
Officials from Entergy Nuclear Vermont, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, told state and legislative officials on a number of occasions that those pipes did not carry irradiated water. That includes statements made by Entergy officials under oath to the Vermont Public Service Board.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) planned a private meeting with VT Yankee/Entergy officials, regarding NRC oversight of the plant. The private meeting didn’t sit well with folks in VT and NH. NH has 5 communities in the 10 mile evacuation zone of the plant.
Thanks to the intervention of VT and NH legislators a public meeting was held:
Residents and local officials told the NRC during the evening session that the NRC was ineffective because there were few — if any — regulations to hold nuclear companies accountable.
Paul Blanch of West Hartford, Conn., a nuclear consultant and former industry whistleblower, said nuclear companies were taking advantage of the situation.
“Regulations are nonexistent or never enforced,” said Blanch, who said that Vermont Yankee could have discharged “10,000 times” the tritium that it did and still not violate any NRC regulations.
People weren’t impressed with the NRC as a regulatory agency, and they have every reason to feel that way. From Beyond Nuclear:
A new report released today by Beyond Nuclear – Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants – looks at the epidemic of reactors leaking tritium into groundwater. The report finds that the federal regulator – the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission – is ignoring its oversight and enforcement responsibilities at the nation’s increasingly leaky, uninspected and unmaintained nuclear power plants. The report shows that despite agency efforts initiated in 1979 to prevent uncontrolled radioactive releases to groundwater, the NRC is capitulating to an industry decision to take almost three more years before announcing an action plan.
Regulatory agencies must be forced to do their jobs. Paying for the ounce of prevention is cheaper, better for the environment, and it saves lives. We must also pass the The Protecting America’s Workers Act.
Two Miners Missing in Kentucky. There was a collapse in the Webster County Coal Dokiti Mine:
Records show inspectors from the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing have issued 31 orders to close sections of the mine or to shut down equipment because of safety violations since January 2009. Those records also show an additional 44 citations for safety violations that didn’t result in closure orders.
The fines it levies are relatively small, and many go uncollected for years. It lacks subpoena power, a basic investigatory tool. Its investigators are not technically law enforcement officers, like those at other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
And its criminal sanctions are weak, a result of compromises over the 1977 Mine Act that created the agency. Falsifying records is a felony, for example, while deliberate violations of safety standards that lead to deaths are misdemeanors.
Mining companies that fight regulation and oversight tooth and nail:
Since 2005, the number of cases pending appeal before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which reviews challenges, has jumped to 16,000 from 1,500. Federal officials estimated that the backlog of challenged cases was holding up enforcement actions against 48 mines, which employ about 6,000 miners nationwide, including Upper Big Branch.
An analysis of federal records by The New York Times shows that of the $123.4 million in major fines levied against the industry by the agency since 2005, only 8 percent — or $10.2 million — has been collected partly because mine owners began challenging fines more routinely when the agency threatened to increase enforcement for repeat offenders.
“No one will say this who works at that mine, but everyone knows that it has been dangerous for years,” said Andrew Tyler, 22, an electrician who worked on the wiring for the coal conveyer belt as a subcontractor at the mine two years ago.
Mr. Tyler said workers had regularly been told to work 12-hour shifts when eight hours is the industry standard. He also said that live wires had been left exposed and that an accumulation of coal dust and methane was routinely ignored.
“I’m willing to go on record because I am a subcontractor who doesn’t depend on Massey for my life,” Mr. Tyler said.
MONTCOAL, W.Va. — The death toll from a blast at a West Virginia coal mine rose to 25 on Tuesday, federal safety officials said, making it the worst mining accident in the United States in 25 years.
Four miners were still missing, and the officials said it was likely that those men also had been killed in the explosion on Monday.
A recovery operation was called off early Tuesday morning because high levels of methane gas made the mine unsafe for rescuers. Workers were boring holes into the mine to try to get more oxygen inside, an effort that was not expected to be completed for several hours.
However as we hope and pray for the recovery of those now under the earth, it’s hard not to think about the character of those who sent them there. The CEO of Massey Energy is Don Blankenship. The same Don Blankenship who invented a scandal and funded it to the tune of $3 million to run one one state supreme court judge out of office for the crime of siding with workers. The same Blankenship who was photographed cavorting along the French Riveria with another justice while his company had a $77 million case before the court. The same Don Blankenship who regularly condemns the whole idea of environmental protection, saying that global warming does not exist and that asking people to conserve is tantamount to communism. The same Blankenship and the same Massey that last year was convicted of massive and systematic age discrimination. The same Blankenship and the same Massey who were ordered to pay $30 million in environmental damages after running up fines that actually topped $2.5 billion.
Most critically this is the same Blankenship and the same Massey who lost miners a recently as 2006 due to lack of safety equipment. At the end of that case, the widows of the dead men refused to accept the settlement, stating that it was clear that the company executives had placed profit ahead of safety.