Workers’ Memorial Day: Death on the Job: AFL-CIO Releases Annual Report

Think about it: An average of 12 workers are killed per day. If those 12 people all died in the same workplace incident – or in some type of tragedy in our hometown – it would make a significant impact on us. But unless you’re a co-worker, friend or family member of one of those 12 workers killed across the country today, those deaths will slip past with relatively little notice.

Each year in honor of Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28, the AFL-CIO releases its annual Death on the Job report. This year’s report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” reveals that in 2009, 4,340 workers were killed on the job, while an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 4.1 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but due to underreporting, the AFL-CIO speculates the true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater – about 8 million to 12 million job injuries and illnesses each year.

2011 is an important year for workplace safety efforts: It marks the 40 anniversary of OSHA, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Society of Safety Engineers. Still, says the AFL-CIO, the job of protecting workers remains unfinished.

This past year marked a series of workplace tragedies that stunned the country. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that is owned by Massey Energy killed 29 coal miners, making it the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years. An explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Conn., killed six workers and another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State killed seven workers. The BP/Transocean Gulf Coast oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster.

Debilitating injuries and deaths cost the nation an estimated $159 billion to $318 billion a year, based upon data from the latest Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. According to the Death on the Job report, in 2009, Montana led the country with the highest rate of worker fatalities in the last year, with Louisiana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska following close behind. The lowest fatality rates were reported in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Delaware.

The report examines the role of OSHA 40 years after its creation. It finds that OSHA remains underfunded and understaffed. “The number of workplace inspectors is woefully inadequate,” notes the report. “The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state OSHA plans have a total of 2,218 inspectors (925 federal and 1,293 state inspectors) to inspect the 8 million workplaces under the OSH Act’s jurisdiction.”

This means, according to the AFL-CIO, that federal OSHA can inspect workplaces on average once every 129 years; the state OSHA plans can inspect them once every 67 years. The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 57,984 workers.

The report also takes issue with civil and criminal penalties tied to OSHA violations. OSHA penalties for serious violations are $1,052 per violation for federal OSHA inspections and $858 for state plans. Even in cases involving worker fatalities, the median total penalty is $5,600 for federal OSHA and $4,543 for the OSHA state plans. Oregon had the lowest median penalty for fatality investigations while New Hampshire had the highest.

The report also noted the striking difference between the numbers for criminal prosecutions for violations of environmental laws versus those for violations of workplace safety laws. The report noted that 239 defendants were charged in 346 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws in FY 2010. Only 84 criminal cases related to worker deaths have been prosecuted in the 40 years since OSHA was created.

“Our work is never done when it comes to workplace safety – the tragedies in the last year at Massey Energy’s Big Branch mine and the BP Gulf Coast oil rig have shown us that,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “This Workers Memorial Day, we need to get one thing straight: Safety regulations don't kill jobs, but unsafe jobs do kill workers.”

The report shows that Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of job fatalities. Latino workers had a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in FY 2009, compared with 3.3 per 100,000 in the general population. Over half of those fatalities were among workers born outside the United States.

The 2011 AFL-CIO "Death on the Job" report is available online at http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/memorial/upload/dotj_2011.pdf.

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