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Safety advocacy groups calling for stronger worker protections

Despite fewer workplace fatalities, advocates warn of dangers

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The latest worker fatality figures show an ongoing decline, but safety advocates are continuing their call for stronger worker protections, oversight and rules.

According to finalized data released April 22 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total of 4,585 workers who died on the job in 2013 was the second lowest on record. Additionally, the rate of 3.3 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers was the lowest ever recorded since BLS converted to hours-based rates in 2006.

However, despite the downward trend, many safety advocates say more must be done.

“Too many workers are still being killed, hurt and diseased on the job,” AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario said during an April 29 press conference announcing the federation’s annual Death on the Job report.

Latino deaths

A major area of concern for several stakeholder groups is the number of deaths among Latinos – the only demographic group to experience an increase in fatalities. On-the-job deaths involving Latinos or Hispanics jumped 9 percent – to 817 – between 2012 and 2013, according to BLS. The group’s fatal injury rate rose to 3.9 in 2013 from 3.7 the previous year.

Latinos have a greater risk of serious injury or death on the job because they often work in high-hazard industries such as construction and agriculture, and are less likely to speak up for their rights, according to Jessica Martinez, deputy director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Enough is enough,” Martinez said in an interview with Safety+Health. “We need to realize there are preventions, that workers do have rights independent of their status, their ethnicity or their language.”

National COSH released a report on April 23 calling for immigration reform. Two-thirds of all Latinos who die on the job are immigrants, according to the AFL-CIO.

OSHA is tasked with enforcing worker protections regardless of immigration status, but many immigrants fear employers will retaliate against them, said Martinez, who claims immigration reform could help immigrants exercise their right to a safe and healthy workplace.

The data

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 22 released a finalized report on 2013 fatal occupational injuries. Among the statistics:

  • Deaths in private construction grew 3 percent between 2012 and 2013, totaling 828.
  • 749 contract workers were killed in 2013, about 16 percent of the total fatal work injuries.
  • Slips, trips and falls accounted for 724 deaths.

Improving OSHA

Part of the problem is an underfunded OSHA, Martinez said – the agency simply does not have enough inspectors to ensure all employers are protecting their workers.

Seminario said federal OSHA’s capacity to inspect workplaces is deteriorating, and it would take the agency 140 years to inspect every workplace in its jurisdiction one time.

“It keeps getting worse,” she said. “Their budget doesn’t go up. The number of inspectors doesn’t go up. The workforce grows.”

In addition to inadequate funding, the agency lacks the appropriate tools, stakeholders assert. Criminal prosecution is extremely rare, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act allows employer prosecution only for misdemeanor offenses – even in the case of a worker’s death caused by criminal neglect, according to the National COSH report. Of the thousands of workplace deaths in 2014, employers in only two cases have been criminally charged.

Mary Vogel, National COSH executive director, said increasing prosecutions would not eliminate all workplace fatalities, but it is a tool that should be used “when appropriate.” Her organization is looking into working with local district attorneys to pursue more prosecutions.

OSHA penalties also are too low, several advocates argue. The current cap for a serious violation is $7,000, even in the case of a fatality. Often, the initially proposed penalty amount is reduced, sometimes by more than half.

For Mary Jane Collins, the OSHA penalty process added insult to tragedy. Her college-age grandson, Brett, was killed on the job in Wyoming and his company was cited with five serious safety violations for failure to follow basic safety rules. The total penalty initially proposed was $13,860. After several months of negotiations between the company and Wyoming’s OSHA program, the final penalty was $6,773.

“A life so full of possibilities was lost, and the fine for multiple serious safety violations was negotiated to less than the price of a used car,” Collins said during an April 23 National COSH press conference. She urged the establishment of a minimum, non-negotiable fine of $50,000 for any serious safety violation cited by OSHA that results in a fatality.

Some advocates believe additional aspects of OSHA need to be improved. In AFL-CIO’s "Death on the Job" report, the federation characterized OSHA’s progress toward issuing new safety and health regulations as “slow and disappointing.” Since 2009, the agency has issued only four major rules, and the report states that several other rules are “long overdue,” including beryllium and combustible dust.

On May 1, just days after the AFL-CIO report was released, OSHA issued its long-awaited final rule on confined spaces in the construction industry

Who’s dying on the job?

A new database detailing the lives and deaths of nearly 2,000 workers killed on the job in 2014 was published on April 28 – Workers Memorial Day.

A group of workplace safety advocates, including the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and the AFL-CIO, released the U.S. Worker Fatality Database as part of an effort to better understand the circumstances of the fatal injuries to help prevent future deaths.

The database offers more detail than is found in the aggregated figures released each year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specifically, it includes the names of the employer and deceased worker, location, and specific circumstances of the death. It also includes links to public documents on the deaths, such as OSHA reports and media coverage.

Occupational illnesses and preventive measures

Stronger safety and health standards will help better protect workers, Seminario said, and a vital area in need of stricter enforcement is chemicals. The National Safety Council states that as many as 650,000 hazardous chemical products may be used in the United States, and their effects on a person can last long after the workplace exposure. The official annual count of fatal workplace injuries is about 4,500 – far less than the estimated number of fatalities occurring each year due to occupational illnesses, according to the council.

“Workplace fatalities due to illness are estimated to be more than 10 times that of deaths from workplace injuries,” NSC President and CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman said in an April 22 press release.

Most chemicals used in the workplace do not have an OSHA permissible exposure limit, and PELs currently in place are out of date and no longer adequately protect workers, the agency has said. Last year, OSHA announced an initiative to address chemical hazards, and the agency is seeking input from stakeholders on the best way to approach workplace chemical exposure.

In the interim, NSC recommends employers take steps to better manage occupational exposures, including using the Hierarchy of Controls (elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment) to handle chemical exposures and reduce risks.

Peter Dooley, a senior consultant with National COSH, likewise suggests employers use the Hierarchy of Controls as a tool to prevent workplace deaths. During the National COSH press conference, he listed several recent workplace fatalities he said could have been avoided with such strategies.

“In many cases, there’s multiple ways that if any number of these strategies would have been employed in a serious way, it would have prevented the tragedy from happening,” Dooley said.

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