Union Officials Say Workplaces Still Too Dangerous, Enforcement Too Weak
Thousands of health and safety advocates and labor groups recently marked the 21st annual Workers Memorial Day with events to raise awareness about work-related injury and fatality risks. Many believe that much more can be done to protect the health and safety of the American workforce.
To coincide with the event, the AFL-CIO released a report -- Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect -- that concluded that the nation's workplace safety laws and penalties are still too weak to effectively protect workers. Officials pointed to several high-profile tragedies in recent months as cause for concern.
"In less than three months time, 42 workers have been killed in three major industrial disasters at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, the Tesoro Refinery in Washington state, and the Kleen Energy plant in Connecticut," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
Problem areas. The report highlighted several health and safety issues that remain a problem in today's workforce, including:
- Underreporting of injuries. Researchers said that underreporting of work-related injuries and illnesses remains a problem and estimate the number of injuries to be as many as two to three times the 4.6 million reported incidents. On average, 14 workers were fatally injured each day in 2008. The report concluded that this statistic does not include death from occupational diseases, which claims the lives of an estimated 50,000-60,000 more workers each year.
The accuracy of employer-reported health and safety data has come under fire in recent years. Last fall, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched a national emphasis program on recordkeeping to assess the legitimacy of injury and illness data. The program complements the Labor Department's efforts to investigate factors accounting for differences between the number of workplace injuries and illnesses estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and those estimated by other data sources.
- Elevated risk of injury and death for Hispanic workers. The report found that Hispanic workers continue to face much higher risks of injury and death on the job. In 2008, Hispanic workers suffered 804 fatal injuries. This represented a 51 percent increase in the number of fatalities among Hispanic workers since 1992 when the BLS started the fatality census.At the same time, the overall number of workplaces fatalities dropped from 6,217 in 1992 to 5,214 in 2008. However, the fatality rate among these workers was 4.2 per 100,000 workers -- 13.5 percent higher than the fatal injury rate for all U.S. workers.
Researchers said fatalities among foreign-born or immigrant workers marked another alarming trend outlined in the report. In 2008, 835 workplace deaths were reported among immigrant workers. While this number is an improvement over 2007, it represented a 31 percent increase in fatalities among foreign-born workers since 1992.
- Low penalties and lack of enforcement personnel. The report also examined job safety enforcement in cases of workplace fatalities. Researchers found that the median penalty in fatalities investigated by federal OSHA and OSHA state plans was just $5,000. Utah had the lowest median penalty in fatality cases with $1,250 in penalties assessed, followed by Washington with a median penalty of $1,600, and Kentucky with a median penalty of $2,000. These low penalties, researchers said, are too weak to deter violations.
Researchers said both OSHA and Mine Safety and Health Administration are moving to step up enforcement against employers with repeated violations. In addition, the Obama administration has increased the budget for workplace health and safety and is hiring hundreds of new inspectors. However, the report noted that there are only 2,218 OSHA inspectors -- 885 federal and 1,333 state inspectors -- for the approximately 130 million U.S. workers. At this rate, the report concluded that federal OSHA inspectors are only able to inspect workplaces, on average, once every 137 years, and state OSHA inspectors on average once every 63 years.
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June 14, 2010
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