From the weakening of workers’ compensation to the lives of America’s nuclear plant workers, it was another year of stellar news reporting on worker health and safety.
Myself, along with Celeste Monforton and Roger Kerson, did our best to highlight such reporting, as well as new worker health research, in “The Year In U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2015 – Summer 2016,” which we released, appropriately, on Labor Day. Among the journalistic highlights, reporters at the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica and NPR continued investigative efforts into the dismantling of traditional workers’ compensation systems as well as the barriers that sick and injured workers face in trying to access compensation.
In particular, Michael Grabell of ProPublica and Howard Berkes at NPR took an in-depth look at the Texas-based attorney behind the recent opt-out trend, which allows employers to create private compensation plans and that the reporters found “give employers almost complete control over the medical and legal process after workers get injured.” Other workers’ comp stories of note focused on the victims of long-term occupational illness, fraud within the workers’ comp system, and the impact of excessive depositions on injured workers.
The plight of nuclear workers received a good bit of ink this year as well. For example, McClatchy newspapers published a four-part series on workers who were exposed to radioactive materials in nuclear weapons plants, finding that more than 33,000 former nuclear workers who received compensation have died — that number is more than four times the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other exceptional national news reporting featured in this year’s Labor Day report focused on the third wave of asbestos-related deaths; deadly exposures to chemical paint removers; the treacherous conditions inside the recycling industry; and inadequate safety at chemical facilities.
Worker health and safety made headlines at the state and local levels as well. A few of this year’s highlights from the report: the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a four-part series on farmworker fatalities; reporters at the Detroit Free Press conducted a year-long investigation into the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and in Washington state, the Tacoma News Tribune uncovered severe understaffing at a state mental health hospital that was putting both workers and patients at risk.
Journalists weren’t the only ones busy exposing threats to worker health and safety. Researchers and advocates put out a variety of reports in the past year that not only exposed hazardous working conditions, but offered practical ways to hold employers accountable. Of particular note, a number of reports were published on conditions inside poultry processing plants, such as Oxfam America’s “The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken,” which is based on interviews with more than 200 poultry workers. Other reports from nonprofit organizations tackled the cost of construction injuries in Texas; conditions inside New York’s commercial waste industry; and ways to encourage prosecutors to investigate worker deaths as criminal acts.
We also highlighted a variety of peer-reviewed research in the yearbook, including new findings on the value of workers centers, the connection between long work hours and heart health, and the role of hydrocarbon gases in the deaths of oil and gas workers.
All of this and much more are featured in this year’s report, which you can download and share today. And let us know what news stories and research you would have highlighted in the comments below.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.