Despite years of progress, AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report shows we still have a long way to go
In the decades since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established, there’s been a lot of progress reducing worker deaths and injuries on the job, but there’s still a long way to go.
In 2019, 5,333 working people were killed on the job and an estimated 95,000 died from occupational diseases, according to the AFL-CIO’s 30th annual Death on the Job report. Every day, according to the report, an average of 275 U.S. workers die from hazardous working conditions.
And those numbers don’t reflect the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic that has been responsible for far too many worker infections and deaths across the country.
“This year, we commemorate 50 years of OSHA and the lives saved by ensuring workers are protected on the job,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that workplace safety protections are absolutely critical, and we still have a long way to go. As a country, we must renew our commitment to safe jobs for all workers and invest the resources to make that happen.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was fought for by Organized Labor, has helped cut deaths on the job from nine per 100,000 workers 30 years ago to 3.5 per 100,000 in 2019, the latest available data shows.
Those figures can be misleading though. In a Zoom press conference unveiling the report, Shuler said about 95,000 workers a year still die from occupational illnesses, often contracted long before. And illness and death disproportionately hit workers of color, she added.
The law’s weak penalties don’t help. The maximum federal fine for the death of a worker on the job is $12,788, though some states have higher fines. The maximum jail time if a worker dies is six months. And OSHA’s meager resources declined drastically under the anti-worker policies of the Trump Administration.
Federal OSHA has only 774 safety and health inspectors and state OSHA plans have a combined 1,024 inspectors — near the lowest total since the creation of the agency. Renewed attention and dedicated resources to getting inspectors back on the job is crucial to fulfilling the promise of safe jobs for all workers.
CHANCE FOR IMPROVEMENT
“We have a pro-worker president, a pro-worker vice president, and a pro-worker majority in Congress,” Shuler said, which gives workers “a chance to improve the OSH Act and beef up enforcement.”
The report reiterates that hope, stating: “The recent election of President Biden brings promise and hope to a nation and world decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to working people who have struggled for years under anti-worker policies that make their workplaces more dangerous.
“But 50 years after the passage of the nation’s job safety laws, the toll of workplace injury, illness, and death remain too high, and too many workers remain at serious risk. There is much more work to be done.”
Trump Administration policies hamstrung collection
of accurate job safety and health figures
The Trump Administration hamstrung even collecting accurate and up-to-date job safety and health figures. As a result, OSHA’s figures and those compiled by the AFL-CIO in its annual Death on the Job report, are a year or more behind, and understate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The report has a separate coronavirus section, even though the government does not require COVID-19 (coronavirus) illnesses and deaths to be reported by industry, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Rebecca Reindel pointed out. That’s another hole in enforcement, she said.
The Trump Administration ordered enforcement downplayed so much that tracing virus outbreaks –– much less enforcing worker safety against COVID-19 –– was difficult at best.
“We had a COVID-19 outbreak” at the AT&T call center in Nashville, Tenn., said Eric Chapman of Communications Workers 3808. “We tried to have the sales department work from home” to stop the community spread of the virus in the workplace. Such a spread is a common occurrence, workers on the Zoom conference call said.
“There were 300 people crowded together. Ten to 12 were infected. Being six feet apart did not seem to protect us,” he added. “Last October, everyone was scared for our lives. We were treated like we were disposable.” But AT&T did nothing until one died.
Workplace outbreaks were not counted by state, except for nursing homes, prisons and meatpackers, and allied occupations. The AFL-CIO gathered those on its own.
Nebraska led the nation in COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants (7,236), followed by Iowa (6,609), Arkansas (6,600), and North Carolina (4,803). Nebraska (28), Kansas (27), North Carolina (23), and Iowa and Arkansas (22 each) led in deaths among packing plant workers.
National Nurses United co-president Zenei Cortez, RN, recounted how, even before the pandemic was officially declared on March 13, 2020, her union and its 190,000 registered nurses campaigned for personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line workers.
They also agitated and sued for an OSHA temporary emergency standard ordering firms to create and implement anti-virus plans to protect workers and customers. The GOP Trump Administration fought those demands and crowed about beating the AFL-CIO and NNU in the court case.
OSHA sent a proposed standard to Biden’s Office of Management and Budget for review on April 26. It’s needed, Shuler said, because “COVID-19 is not over. It’ll remain a threat to workers for the foreseeable future.”
At the start of the pandemic, Cortez said her hospital “locked PPE up” and forced nurses to reuse N95 masks and respirators, which are designed to be disposable after one use. That endangered nurses and patients.
NNU conducted hundreds of protests, marches on hospitals and hospital magnates’ homes, plus solemn scenes of empty shoes, representing RNs killed by PPE and, though Cortez didn’t say so some forced strikes. NNU members got PPE and other protection. Non-union nurses didn’t or couldn’t, Cortez said.
One graphic in the report, of COVID-19 infections among staffers in U.S. nursing homes, by week, showed 8,773 infections in the first week of data, ending last June 7. The count rose to a peak of 22,671 in the week ending Dec. 13, followed by 22,565 the next week and 21,751 in the week ending Dec. 23. The latest figure for the week ending April 11, 2021: 2,301.
Federal OSHA reported receiving 3,103 complaints about COVID-19 in the health care industry last year, another chart shows. Retail trade (1,652) and restaurants (854) placed second and third. There were no complaint figures for state OSHAs, which cover more than half of the states. And the complaints led to little enforcement: 1,133 federal violation citations, 2,421 state violation citations.
(Information from the AFL-CIO and PAI Union News Service)
The toll of neglect
One of the most disturbing statistics in the AFL-CIO’s 2021 Death on the Job report is the increase in the death rate for workers of color.
- The fatality rate for Latino workers increased 14 percent from 2018 and is the highest rate since 2008. In 2019, there were 1,088 Latino worker deaths, compared with 961 Latino worker deaths in 2018. The majority (66 percent) of Latino workers who died on the job in 2019 were immigrants.
- Black workers are also at an increased risk of work-related deaths. In 2019, 634 Black workers died—the highest number in more than two decades.
Another alarming trend is growing workplace violence. It is the third-leading cause of workplace death. In 2019, deaths increased to 841, while more than 30,000 violence-related lost-time injuries were reported.
Older workers have a higher risk of dying on the job. More than one-third of workplace fatalities occurred among workers 55 and older. And workers 65 or older have nearly three times the risk of dying on the job as other workers.
MOST DANGEROUS STATES
The most dangerous states for workers were:
• Alaska (14.1 deaths/100,000 workers
• Wyoming (12/100,000)
• North Dakota (9.7/100,000)
• Montana (7.8/100,000)
• West Virginia (6.4/100,000)
MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS
The most dangerous occupations were:
• Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (23.1 deaths per 100,000 workers)
• Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (14.6/100,000)
• Transportation, and warehousing (13.9/100,000 workers)
• Construction (9.7/100,000)
• Wholesale trade (4.9/100,000)
WORSE IN ‘RTW’ STATES
While the report did not say so, more so-called “right to work” states — including three of the five worst — had higher death rates for workers. The bottom five included
• Wyoming (49th)
• North Dakota (48th)
• West Virginia (46th)
Other RTW states and their rankings, with 50th being worst:
• Alabama and Oklahoma (tied for 30th)
• Arizona (11th)
• Arkansas (40th)
• Florida (18th)
• Georgia (33rd)
• Idaho (27th)
• Indiana and Iowa (tied at 35th)
• Kansas (43rd)
• Kentucky (30th)
• Louisiana (44th)
• Michigan private sector (22nd)
• Mississippi (41st)
• Nebraska (42nd)
• Nevada (13th)
• North Carolina (25th)
• South Carolina (39th)
• South Dakota and Texas (tied for 35th)
• Tennessee (25th)
• Utah (20th)
• Virginia (33rd)
• Wisconsin (24th)
OSHA doesn’t cover the self-employed, meaning independent contractors, and their fatality rate — 13.2 per 100,000 — shows it.
In 2019, 1,098 such workers died on the job, one-fifth of all deaths. By contrast, wage and salary workers had a 2.9/100,000 death rate.
Self-employed/independent contractor data is no longer this year due to an update in disclosure methodology and reduction in publishable data — decreasing the transparency.