September 2, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

Last year, Celeste Monforton and I started 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 2012 – Summer 2013, the second edition in the annual series, 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.

The past year has seen horrific disasters, from the West Fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, which killed 15 people, to the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which destroyed hundreds of workers’ lives. Disabling and fatal incidents injure that injure and kill one or two workers at a time get less news coverage, but happen on a daily basis. Workers across the country are demanding better: not only safe workplaces, but jobs with dignity and livable wages. This year, the most visible mobilizations came from fast-food and retail workers walking off the job in one-day strikes for better wages the opportunity to unionize. Here’s our quick summary of highlights (and lowlights) from the past twelve months:

  • New Research on Worker Health and Safety: Several studies investigating occupational health and safety among women and young workers provide insights into hazards these populations face. Reports from nonprofit organizations address some of the most vulnerable worker populations, including those who work in meat and poultry processing and domestic employment, and those who are vulnerable due to their migrant, contingent, or low-wage status.
  • The Federal Government: Congress continues with its anti-regulatory rhetoric and its gridlock over budgetary issues. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have advanced their work to crack down on some of the most dangerous workplaces, but have continued to find their efforts at new regulations delayed by the White House. The release of OSHA’s proposed silica rule last month was welcome, but happened only after more than two years of delay and mounting pressure from advocates.
  • State and Local Activities: Several state and local governments have passed worker-friendly laws, with Portland and New York City adding themselves to the growing list of U.S. jurisdictions that allow most workers to earn paid sick days. Several states and cities have also raised their minimum wages. With these and other victories, however, has come a backlash from employers and industry groups, many of whom are now backing bills that would pre-empt worker-friendly legislation.
  • Food Worker Activism: Over the past year, the many workers behind our food – from farmworkers to employees of fast-food chains to restaurant cooks and servers – have made strides to improve their job conditions. From agricultural workers mobilizing for immigration reform and better pesticide protection, to fast-food workers striking for better wages and working conditions, workers are reminding us that a sustainable food system must include fairness for those who pick, prepare, sell, and serve our food.

I’m going to highlight a few of the items from the Research section today, and we’ll have more about the federal, state/local, and food workers sections in the coming days.

Peer-reviewed literature: This year, several studies addressed the effects of chemical hazards on women – in particular, the increased risk of breast cancer found in women working in automotive plastics manufacturing in a large Canadian cohort, and multiple studies (involving US, French, and Russian subjects) linking maternal occupational exposures to solvents and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to certain birth defects. Another group of studies focused on young workers, assessing their knowledge and attitudes about workplace safety issues and investigating factors affecting young workers’ risk of on-the-job injuries. Other studies addressed hazards among construction workers, Latino workers, migrant farmworkers, welders, autoworkers, and critical-care nurses, and some researchers focused on what happens after workers get injured, including whether employers discourage reporting of injuries and the likelihood of workers’ compensation insurance covering treatment costs.

Reports from nonprofit organizations: Recent reports from nonprofit organizations address the working conditions of some of the most vulnerable worker populations, including those who work in industries with limited protections – including meat and poultry processing and household employment – and those who are vulnerable due to their migrant, contingent, or low-wage status. Researchers from UMass-Lowell, MassCOSH, and Boston Workers’ Alliance also investigated potential links between working conditions and difficulties achieving or maintaining a healthy weight, a challenge that cuts across industries. And J. Paul Leigh of University of California Davis calculated the annual cost of occupational injuries and illnesses for US workers in low-wage occupations: more than 1.6 million injuries and 87,000 illnesses, with an estimated cost of $39 billion. Celeste and I wrote a companion policy brief to that study, addressing the burdens workplace injuries and illnesses place on low-wage families and their communities.

Legal perspectives: In articles and books, legal scholars have explored how laws, programs, and legal settlements are failing to protect workers from on-the-job hazards. They report on ways that employers, industries, and their political allies have eroded protections designed to protect workers from wage theft, black lung disease, and unsafe workplaces. The book Freedom to Harm: The Lasting Legacy of the Laissez Faire Revival, by Thomas O. McGarity of the Center for Progressive Reform, came out the month before the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion demonstrated the deadly consequences that can result from insufficient oversight. In a Christian Science Monitor op-ed following the West explosion, McGarity writes, “This lack of attention to the safety of our workplaces and neighborhoods is no accident. It is the product of a concerted attack by the US Chamber of Commerce, industry trade associations, and conservative think tanks on what they see as onerous regulatory programs – but ones that were enacted by Congress over the years to protect the public from irresponsible corporate misconduct.”

More information about these studies and reports, along with others, is in our report’s Research section (pages 3 – 11 in the PDF).

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. We’ll have more posts this week about other sections of the report, and we hope some of you will join the conversation in the comments section.

Click through to download all of The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2012 – Summer 2013.

Other posts in this series:


One thought on “On Labor Day, looking back at the year in US occupational health and safety

  1. Outstanding report! It’s really useful to put this annual summary together. Thanks for doing it, and keep up the great work.

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