The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 20, 2014

Death on the job report: OSHA has been a lifesaver, but more can be done

By The Building Tradesman

(By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer)

WASHINGTON (PAI)–Seven days a week, 365 days a year, weekends and holidays included, a worker dies on the job slightly more than once every other hour.

That’s the stark data from Death on the Job 2014, the AFL-CIO’s 23rd consecutive report on job safety, including fatalities, illnesses and injuries, in the U.S. It was released last month.

Since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, the job fatality rate has been dropped 81 percent, saving the lives of 492,000 American workers.

Federal job death, injury and illness data from 2012, the most recent year available, show that 4,628 workers were killed on the job that year, down slightly from the year before.  That’s 13 workers every 24 hours, the report says.  For every 100,000 workers, 3.4 of them died on the job that year, a rate virtually unchanged since 2009.

Another 13,090 workers were injured or became ill from their jobs daily in 2012, the report says.  That’s three workers injured every two hours, round-the-clock, year-round, calculations show.  And that’s not counting the estimated 50,000 workers who die later, from diseases such as black lung or silicosis, that they contracted on their jobs over the years.

“The number is still too high, and that’s unacceptable,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s veteran Director of Occupational Safety and Health.

Some of the conclusions from the report:

*Women workers should be particularly concerned about workplace violence. Two-thirds of the 24,610 workers who were victims of on-the-job violence in 2012 were women.  Another 803 workers, of both sexes, died violently.     “Workplace violence is the second-leading cause of death on the job,” Seminario said.  “It’s even ahead of falls” and trails only vehicle accidents. 

*The report declares there have been improvements in job safety and health since unions helped push through the Occupational Safety and Health Act through Congress in 1970.  “More than 492,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since its passage,” the report says, and on-the-job fatalities have dropped by 81 percent.

“It’s an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can only provide oversight,” Seminario says.  “And union density and union power makes a huge difference in how these problems are addressed.”

*The AFL-CIO’s report had mixed news about the Obama Administration’s safety enforcement record. Enforcement has improved, but since 2009, only four major final OSHA safety and health standards have been issued. “The regulatory process is incredibly slow and incredibly difficult,” Seminario says.  “We’d hoped Obama would have moved faster.”

*There’s some good news about reducing silica exposure. The Office of Management and Budget stopped blocking a rule to cut worker exposure to

silica, which leads to silicosis and to cancers.  Cutting exposure will prevent 700 deaths and 1,600 cases of disease each year, OSHA says.

“We’ve known about the dangers of silica for decades,” Seminario says.  “That rule has been 17 years in the making, and an estimated 12,000 workers have died because it hasn’t been put in place.”

*In April, the Mine Safety and Health Administration “issued an important final standard to reduce coal miners’ exposure to repairable dust to help finally end black lung disease, the report notes.

*And for the last several years, it adds, there’s a second political threat to worker safety and health: Congressional Republicans and their budget-cutting, aided and abetted by business’ opposition to any and all OSHA rules.  The GOP, the report says, has substituted ideology for science, and safety.

OSHA and state OSHAs are still woefully understaffed, the report points out: There’s one state or federal OSHA inspector for every 67,847 workers, and 1,955 safety and health inspectors – state and federal combined – for the nation’s eight million workplaces.  That means an average state inspector would get to a workplace once every 79 years and an average federal inspector, once every 139 years.