September 4, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

In honor of (US) Labor Day, Celeste Monforton and I have started what we intend to be a new Labor Day tradition: publication of a report that highlights some of the important research and activities in occupational health in the US over the past year.   The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2011 – Summer 2012 is now available online. We want it to be a resource for activists, regulators, researchers, and anyone else who values safe and healthy workplaces. Much as the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report focuses attention on workplace injury and illness statistics each April, this report documents successes, challenges, and areas ripe for improvement in occupational health and safety.

In a nutshell, here’s what stood out for us over the past year:

  • New Research on Worker Health & Safety: New studies on a range of topics have provided further insight into circumstances surrounding workplace injuries and illnesses and highlighted solutions.
  • Federal Government: The year just ending has been difficult for those who hoped the Obama Administration would bring substantial nationwide improvements to worker health and safety. Several federal agencies took worthwhile and important steps, but they weren’t the kind of lasting victories many of us envisioned.
  • State and Local Activities: In contrast to their federal counterparts, state and local lawmakers and regulators have been active, passing laws and writing regulations to address on-the-job hazards.

I’m going to highlight a few of the items from the Research section today, and Celeste will write about the federal and state/local activities in the coming days.

One of the things that struck me in putting together the research section was that so much of what researchers produced over the past year is directly relevant to the policy issues that politicians keep bringing up. Over the past months, we’ve seen politicians from both sides of the aisle  buying into the mistaken notion that regulations by definition are bad for the economy and that the response to a recession should be to slash the regulatory system. But over the past year, several studies have added to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that unsafe workplaces impose enormous costs (financial and otherwise) on society, and that enforcement efforts can improve workplace safety without causing job loss. Here are a few of the peer-reviewed studies addressing occupational health and safety that we describe in our report:

  • Occupational injuries and illnesses impose huge costs on the US: J. Paul Leigh estimated that in the US in 2007, occupational injuries and illnesses killed 58,600 people and sickened or injured nearly 9 million more, and cost $250 billion. (Celeste wrote about this study earlier.)
  • Workers’ compensation insurers cover just less than one-fourth of the costs of occupational injuries and illnesses: J. Paul Leigh and James P. Mancin calculated that in 2007, workers’ compensation insurers covered just 21% of the direct and indirect costs of work-related injuries and illnesses. Victims and their families absorb most of the cost-shifting, and taxpayers and non-workers-compensation insurers also shoulder a substantial share.
  • In Washington state, enforcement saves money:  Michael Foley and colleagues analyzed enforcement data from the state occupational healthe and safety agency along with workers’ compensation claims and found that inspections were associated with a decline in the rate of compensable workers-compensation claims. They found inspections that included citations to be more effective for reducing claims rates than inspections that did not include citations.
  • Inspections didn’t cost jobs in California: David I. Levine, Michael W. Toffel, and Matthew S. Johnson compared data on California workplaces that received Cal/OSHA inspections with similar ones that were eligible for inspections but didn’t receive them. They found found no statistically significant effects from inspections on creditworthiness, sales, or total employment – differences they would expect to see if the inspections were harming businesses as some claim.

Our report also describes several peer-reviewed studies of Latino poultry workers, conducted by researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North Caroline Greensboro, that shed light on the kinds of health outcomes experienced disproportionately by this population. Their research was especially timely because in early 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed to allow the line speed in poultry slaughter facilities to increase significantly (see here and here). In addition to these regulation-relevant studies, we give brief descriptions to several more pieces of peer-reviewed research of interest to the occupational health and safety community, and list several dozen studies in an appendix.

This section of the report also covers research produced by advocacy organizations and legal scholars — and, not surprisingly, several of the advocacy groups’ reports also speak to the issue of workplace health and safety problems that can fester when the regulatory system doesn’t address them adequately:

  • Saving Lives, Preserving the Environment, Growing the Economy: The Truth About Regulation, Center for Progressive Reform: Government regulations have made food and drugs for U.S. consumers safer, the air we breathe cleaner, and workplaces and roadways less deadly.  The authors argue that despite these successes, an assault on regulations continues, using a tactic fueled by the untrue claim that high regulatory costs are responsible for our nation’s slow economic recovery and job growth.
  • OSHA Inaction: Onerous Requirements Imposed on OSHA Prevent the Agency from Issuing Lifesaving Rules, Public Citizen: Despite evidence that OSHA standards are cost-effective at preventing fatalities, disabling injuries, and occupational illnesses, the agency faces legal and political obstacles that make new worker safety regulations a rarity. The authors examine the lengthy chronology of efforts to address several workplace hazards, such as silica and beryllium.
  • Latinos in the Poultry Industry, National Council of La Raza: Latino workers comprise at least 34% of the U.S. poultry processing industry. Despite consumers’ growing demand for poultry products – about eight billion chickens per year – workers’ hourly salaries keep them at the federal poverty level.  They also suffer well documented chronic and disabling injuries to their hands, wrists, shoulders, and backs because of the fast pace of the “disassembly” lines. National Council of La Raza examines how a proposed USDA food safety regulation would adversely affect this vulnerable worker population. (Also see the organization’s May 2011 report “We Needed the Work: Latino Voices in the New Economy.”)
  • Chain of Greed: How Walmart’s Domestic Outsourcing Produces Everyday Low Wages and Poor Working Conditions for Warehouse Workers, National Employment Law Project: Walmart’s “everyday low prices” depend on a business model that outsources warehousing, transportation, and delivery systems to large firms that further subcontract the work, often to “temporary” workers supplied by staffing agencies.  The report describes working conditions for the warehouse workers hired to load and unload shipping containers, and their struggles with wage theft and safety violations.
  • The Next OSHA: Progressive Reforms to Empower Workers, Center for Progressive Reform: The authors identify improvements that could be made to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to empower workers and strengthen their role in the occupational health and safety system. Ideas include citizen suits to compel employers to provide safe working conditions, mandatory paid safety training, and safety committees.

Our report is not exhaustive. To keep it to a manageable length, we made some tough decisions about which activities and projects to include or omit. We want to hear from our readers about what else you would have included in this kind of annual report — or what you would include in an international version. Since this post is specifically about research, please post comments here about occupational health studies or reports published over the past year that you’ve found especially useful or compelling. Celeste will post more about the other sections of the report (federal and state/local activities) later in the week and invite comments on those areas then.

Click through to download all of The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2011 – Summer 2012. Or read other blog posts about the report:

The year in worker health & safety: action (and not) on the federal scene
States and localities take on poor working conditions, safety hazards

2 thoughts on “A New Labor Day Tradition: The Year in Occupational Health & Safety

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