May 8, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

The rate of work-related fatal injuries in some States is more than three times the national rate of 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.  That’s just one disturbing fact contained in the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report which was released this week.    In Wyoming, for example, the rate of fatal work-related injuries is 11.6 per 100,000, based on 32 deaths in the State in 2011 (the year for which the most recent data is available.)  North Dakota’s and Montana’s rate is 11.2, based on 44 and 49 deaths, respectively.  The rate in Alaska is 11.1, based on 39 deaths.  In total, 4,693 workers lost their lives from traumatic work-related injuries.  There are not hard figures on work-related disease deaths per year, but the best estimates put the figure at 53,000.

Equally disturbing is the scant number of workplace safety inspectors in these States.  The 51-page section entitled “State Profiles,” provides the painful details on how few public resources are directed to ensuring workplaces are safe.  There are only 8 inspectors for all of Wyoming.  That’s 8 inspectors to cover an area that exceeds 97,000 square miles and is home to 25,000 workplaces.   There are also only 8 inspectors for the entire State of North Dakota.   There are more than 27,000 workplaces in North Dakota, employing about 379,000 workers.  Egads!  Montana has nearly 42,000 workplaces and only 5 OSHA inspectors.  Five inspectors??

The report notes that the United Nation’s International Labour Organization suggests a benchmark for industrialized countries of one workplace safety inspector for every 10,000 workers.   Yet,

“in the states of Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas and West Virginia the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1 per 100,000 workers.”

U.S. workers deserve better than that.

For the one-year period beginning October 1, 2011 and ending September 30, 2012, federal OSHA and the States that operate their own OSHA programs conducted about 92,000.   That’s just 1 percent of the nation’s 9 million workplaces.   Depending on the State, it would take inspectors between 30 years and 288 years to inspect each worksite just once.  The AFL-CIO report explains:

“Since the passage of the OSH Act the number of workplaces and number of workers under OSHA’s jurisdiction has more than doubled, while at the same time the number of OSHA inspectors has been reduced.  At the peak of federal OSHA staffing in 1980, there were 1,469 federal OSHA inspectors (including supervisors)… by 2011, there were only 1,059 federal OSHA inspectors (including supervisors).”

That’s a 28% reduction in the number of workplace safety inspectors.   Is it any wonder that OSHA hadn’t inspected the fertilizer facility in West, Texas since 1985?

When safety inspectors conduct inspections and identify hazards, the penalties proposed don’t pack much punch.   The average proposed penalty for a serious violation (i.e., one that poses a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm) was just $2,343 when the inspection was conducted by a federal OSHA inspector.  Worse yet is the record in the States that operate their own OSHA programs.  In these States, the average proposed penalty for a serious violation was just $974, with some States skewing that average.  The report notes that federal OSHA adopted a policy in October 2010 which increased its average penalty amount from $1,052 to the $2,343 figure.  More than two years later, however, federal OSHA has not formally directed the State OSHA programs to adopt the policy.  On top of this, the maximum penalty amount set by Congress for a serious OSHA violation is $7,000, but the agency’s current penalty policy, ensures most employers—-despite their violations of the law—will not receive a penalty close to the $7,000 maximum.

U.S. workers deserve better protections than that.

This 2013 edition of the Death on the Job report indicates that the number of willful violations issued by federal OSHA decreased between fiscal year 2011 and 2012, from 572 to 424.   We don’t know whether that means there are actually fewer employers who have been found willfully violating workplace safety laws, or whether the Labor Department’s attorneys are just more reluctant to allow OSHA inspectors to classify violations as willful.

It’s the 22nd year the AFL-CIO has prepared its Death on the Job report.  The 200-page document includes data through 2011 (and in some instances 2012) and offers dozens of tables showing the history of OSHA funding, inspections, and penalties, as well as work-related injury and fatality rates.  Several tables profile the injury and fatality experience of Latino and other immigrant workers.  Fatalities in 2011 among foreign-born workers from traumatic injuries increased from 798 in 2010 to 843 deaths in 2011.  Twenty-two percent of the deaths occurred in the construction industry.  Another table in the report highlights data from the 1,544 inspections conducted in fiscal year 2012 following a worker’s death.  More of these post-fatality inspections were conducted in Texas (187 cases) and California (151 cases) than any other States.   Overall, the total average penalty assessed in worker fatality cases is less than $5,200.

The Death on the Job report is a great resource on the state of occupational safety and health in the U.S.   The data and statistics help make the case why U.S. workers deserve much better protections than they are getting.



One thought on “Death on the Job report: US workers deserve better protections

  1. I think the schools should do a better job of hazard recognition. Why wait for people to enter the workforce and THEN train? Habits, both safe and unsafe have already been established by that time. Perceptions, both accurate and inaccurate exist as well. We spend years in school learning so many things, but sadly we do not spend enough time discussing safety! Sure there are some hazards that are specific to each industry and/or workplace, but there are also some pretty generic hazards that claim a lot of lives each and every year.

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