This is the 23rd year the AFL-CIO has produced a report on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers.
Workplaces are much safer today than when the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act was passed in 1970, which promised workers in this country the right to a safe job. The job fatality rate has been cut by 81%; more than 492,000 workers' lives have been saved. But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death as workplace tragedies continue to remind us. These tragedies are all preventable.
The 2013 explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant killed 15 people, most of them volunteer emergency responders, and was caused by an unregulated chemical industry. The 2010 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. The 2010 BP Transocean Gulf coast rig explosion killed 11 workers and caused a major environmental disaster.
In 2012, 4,628 workers were killed on the job in the United States, and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases, resulting in a loss of 150 workers each day from hazardous working conditions. Over the past four years, the job fatality rate has largely been unchanged with a rate of 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012.
Nearly 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but many injuries are not reported. The true toll is likely 7.6 million to 11.4 million injuries each year.
North Dakota had the highest fatality rate in the nation (17.7 per 100,000 workers) followed by Wyoming (12.2), Alaska (8.9), Montana (7.3) and West Virginia (6.9). The lowest state fatality rate (1.4 per 100,000 workers) was reported in Massachusetts, followed by Rhode Island (1.7), Connecticut (2.1) and New Hampshire and Washington (2.2).
North Dakota stands out as an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work.
Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of job fatalities, with a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2012. There were 748 Latino workers killed on the job in 2012. Sixty-five percent of these fatalities ( 484 deaths ) were among workers born outside the United States.
Musculoskeletal disorders caused by ergonomic hazards are increasing and now account for 34.7% of all serious injuries . Workplace violence is also a growing problem, causing 24,610 serious injuries and killing 803 workers in 2012. Women workers suffered two-thirds of the injuries related to workplace violence.
The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous—estimated at $250 billion to $330 billion every year.
Job Safety Oversight, Enforcement and Regulatory Action
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state OSHA plans have a total of only 1,955 inspectors (864 federal and 1,091 state inspectors) to inspect the 8 million workplaces under the OSH Act’s authority. It would take federal OSHA 139 years, on average, to inspect each workplace once, and state OSHA plans 79 years. The current levels provide one inspector for every 67,847 workers in America.
OSHA penalties have increased under the Obama administration but are still too low to deter violations. The average penalty for a serious violation of the law in FY 2013 was $1,895 for federal OSHA and $1,011 for the state plans. For killing workers, FY 2013, the median penalty in fatality cases investigated by federal OSHA was $5,600, and for the OSHA state plans the median penalty was $6,100. Criminal penalties under the OSHA law are weak. They are limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker death, resulting in misdemeanors. Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail. During this time there were more than 390,000 worker deaths.
After eight years of neglect and inaction under the Bush administration, progress in issuing new needed protections under the Obama administration has been slow and disappointing. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has blocked and delayed important rules. Since 2009, only four major final OSHA safety and health standards have been issued. Many rules are long overdue, including OSHA rules on confined space entry in construction, beryllium, combustible dust and infectious diseases; and MSHA rules on proximity detection. The time for the Obama administration to act on these rules is running out.
Very simply, workers need more job safety and health protection.
Job safety laws need to be strengthened. Improvements in the Mine Safety and Health Act are needed to give MSHA more authority to enhance enforcement against repeat violators and to shut down dangerous mines. Congress should pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act to extend the OSH Act’s coverage to workers currently excluded, strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violations, enhance anti-discrimination protections and strengthen the rights of workers, unions and victims. About 8 million state and local employees currently lack OSHA coverage .
The nation must renew the commitment to protect workers from injury, disease and death and make this a high priority. We must demand that employers meet their responsibilities to protect workers and hold them accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America’s workers be fulfilled.