by Elizabeth Grossman
“What kind of uproar do you think there would be if CEOs were dying at the same rate as workers, whatever the data?” asked Steve Mitchell UAW Local 974 Health & Safety Representative, just before Labor Day in an online discussion about current U.S. occupational health and safety statistics.
As David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Labor for Safety and Health, pointed out in his July 19th letter to colleagues marking the 40th anniversary of OSHA, “Fourteen workers die on the job each day, far from the headlines… [and] Every year, more than four million workers are seriously injured or are sickened by exposure to toxic agents,” this despite the improvements that have taken place in workplace safety since OSHA began in 1971.
An ever changing litany of these calamities appears on the OSHA website under the heading of “Worker Fatalities.” The tragedies recounted there today – under a banner that tells us 4,340 workers died on the job in 2009 – include:
6/3/2010 WI – Worker was cleaning planes and was exposed to chemicals.
6/8/2010 NC – Residential construction worker doing framing fell from a makeshift scaffold.
6/13/2010 CA – Worker installing a gas line in the attic of a house collapsed from the heat.
6/17/2010 OH – Worker was working with a truck boom. The boom struck a power line and the worker was electrocuted.
I thought about these tragedies – along with Mitchell’s and Michaels’ comments – as I read President Obama’s remarks at the Labor Day Laborfest in Milwaukee, in which he announced initiatives to rebuild the country’s transportation infrastructure and thereby create hundreds of new construction and manufacturing jobs. What came to mind is that the fatal accidents listed by OSHA mostly occurred under rather ordinary working conditions – in jobs that take place around us every day. Jobs building, fixing, and making things – jobs that we need more of. Jobs that most of us think about without considering extreme hazard or danger. But clearly, we need to give these risks more thought and do far more to protect those climbing ladders and wielding machinery – as well as those potentially exposed to chemical hazards.
So I wonder, how much of the President’s proposed $50 billion rebuilding initiative would go to ensure workplace safety for jobs the plan creates? “Currently, many employers are willing to permit the existence of workplace hazards because they recognize it is not in their financial interest to abate serious hazards, especially in the short term,” said Michaels in his July 19th letter. “Too often, the economic and social costs of workplace injuries are borne by the injured worker, their family and our taxpayer supported social programs, rather than the employer.” The maximum OSHA fine, Michaels pointed out, is $7,000 for a serious violation. “In comparison,” noted Michaels, “the top penalty for violating the South Pacific Tuna Act is $350,000.”
What would it take and how much would it cost to eliminate the 14 fatalities that occur in U.S. workplaces each day, even before we start to chip away at the illnesses and injuries that labor statistics don’t capture – let alone what happens in workplaces elsewhere? As Steve Mitchell wrote to me in an email, there’s relatively little general public outrage, until these tragedies hit close to home.
“Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution,” wrote Jefferson Cowie, associate professor of labor history at Cornell University in a New York Times Labor Day op-ed piece. It shouldn’t take a spate of executive suite desk chair accidents to change this equation and ensure that every workplace is as safe as the corner office.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.