Report: Massachusetts Workplace Deaths On the Rise

A new report documenting workplace fatalities in Massachusetts revealed that 80 workers died in 2007, marking the state’s highest annual fatality count within the last 4 years.

“Dying for Work in Massachusetts: The Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces,” produced by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), called for higher OSHA fines, stronger government enforcement and for employers to take more responsibility in protecting their workers.

Twenty-five percent of the fatalities were caused by transportation-related accidents, while nearly another quarter were attributed to falls, according to the report. Sixty-eight percent of the falls occurred in the construction industry. In addition to the 80 workers killed on the job, the report estimates that 800 workers in the state died in 2007 from workplace-related illnesses.

OSHA Oversight

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of MassCOSH and the report’s co-author, told OccupationalHazards.com that current OSHA fines are too low to be a real deterrent for employers, who may view the fines as a less expensive option than actually implementing safety measures.

“We’re deeply concerned about the fines,” Goldstein-Gelb said. “They’re extraordinarily low, pretty much a quick write-off for an employer and a cost of doing business. It really should be a strong deterrent and isn’t in this case.”

In addition to calling for higher fines, the report pointed out that OSHA budget and staffing decreases put workers’ lives at risk. According to the report, OSHA’s budget levels have steadily decreased in real terms since 2001. And in FY 2001, OSHA’s staffing was reported at 2,370, compared to the 2,173 staff members in FY 2007.

“Staffing and overall budget decreases have resulted in a drop in inspection activity and enforcement budget; a fact that is raising cries among worker safety advocates, but not among the agency’s leadership,” the report read.

Goldstein-Gelb pointed out that employees within OSHA may be working to the best of their abilities, but the agency must greatly increase its enforcement staffing to better protect workers. She added that while the state level of occupational safety oversight also should be strengthened, OSHA must step up and do more.

“The only way for OSHA to be strengthened so as to prevent the type of workplace injuries and fatalities documented in this report is for the President, Congress, and OSHA’s leadership to truly subscribe to the agency’s mission: setting and enforcing standards that assure the health and safety of America’s workers,” the report read.

The Risk for Immigrants

The report pointed out that immigrant workers in the state often are exposed to poor working conditions. Language barriers, lack of training, employer exploitation and fear of retaliation or deportation contribute to the challenges of the immigrant workforce.

The report detailed the case of Benedelson Ovalle Chavez, a 17-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who fell 20 feet to his death in August 2007 while performing roof repair on a church. Chavez reportedly was working on a ladder and carrying up to 80 pounds of shingles to the roof’s peak when he fell. He was not wearing fall protection.

According to the report, Chavez spoke no English, was eager to work and was given a job “extremely dangerous even for a well-trained and equipped adult.”

“We continue to see high numbers in disproportionate percentage of immigrants killed on the job,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “We get numerous calls from immigrants we see working in extraordinarily dangerous jobs without training, [and] up at enormous heights without fall protection.”

Employer Accountability

Goldstein-Gelb told OccupationalHazards.com that some employers find “creative ways” to avoid responsibility for the safety of their workers.

“Some employers are either creating subcontractors or misclassifying employees or, at a minimum, hiding behind their subcontractors and not bearing any responsibility for creating these very dangerous circumstances,” she said.

According to the report, some of those dangerous circumstances include not providing adequate training or fall protection or otherwise ensuring workers are protected.

“One quarter of the deaths were caused by falls, and in most, or nearly all, instances, falls are preventable,” Goldstein-Gelb said. She pointed out that basic fall protection is “no secret for employers who do this on a day-to-day basis.”

She explained that employers must provide workers with appropriate training and equipment, make sure the equipment works properly and provide sufficient time to test the equipment and to practice safety measures. She added that employers should be deterred from pressing workers to produce at unsafe rates or creating working conditions that make it impossible to implement safety measures due to unrealistic timelines.

According to Goldstein-Gelb, the best way to decrease the risk of workplace fatalities is the widespread implementation of safety measures, ensuring employers take responsibility and enacting strong government enforcement to encourage employers to act in the workers’ best interests.

“We can only hope that attention can be paid and greater effort devoted to prevention so we don’t have to have these reports year after year with these high numbers,” she said.

The report can be accessed at http://www.masscosh.org.

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