By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI)— AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler had a blunt message for the nation’s errant employers on this year’s Workers’ Memorial Day: “This report should not have to exist,” she said, holding a copy of the annual count of deaths on the job. “These pages should be blank.”
Shuler joined a large crowd in the U.S. Labor Department’s main auditorium to honor the about 5,000 workers killed on the job in calendar 2021, the latest federal data available, and the data the AFL-CIO uses for its annual report.
But unlike past years, this crowd was dominated by families of dead victims of employer neglect, malfeasance and outright refusal to make working conditions safe.
Other victims, in video interviews, told of how they learned their loved ones died.
Shuler reminded the crowd and the nation that behind the dry numbers in the long report were real people who lived and died because of a lack of workplace safety.
“These pages should be blank,” she said with emphasis and a catch in her throat. “Every one” in the report “is someone who woke up one day, kissed their children or their partner goodbye and expected to come back—and didn’t.
“We have to fight like hell to make sure not one more family goes through this,” she said.
The pages of Death On The Job 2023: A Toll Of Neglect aren’t blank, though. They compiled details of the carnage in time for Workers Memorial Day, April 28. The first detail was positive: Since unions, led by the late Tony Mazzocchi, pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Act through Congress just over 50 years ago, calculations show it’s saved at least 688,000 workers’ lives.
“But over the years, the progress has become more challenging as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified,” the report says.
“Big corporations and many Republicans have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections. They are attempting to shift the responsibility to provide safe jobs from employers to individual workers, and undermine the core duties of workplace safety agencies.”
Despite the flak and outright opposition from some corporations, the U.S. must stay committed to the goal of eliminating death, disease and injury on the job, the report says. “Reducing burdens on families and communities must be a high priority,” it declares.
“Employers must meet their responsibilities to protect workers and be held accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America’s workers be fulfilled.” The report’s numbers show how far there is to go:
- The fatality rate rose to 3.6 per 100,000 workers. It was 4/100,000 for Black people, the highest rate in 19 years.
- Employers reported nearly 3.2 million work-related injuries and illnesses, and that figure doesn’t include all the coronavirus victims. The report says the overall injury and illness toll is estimated at between 5.4 million and 8.1 million.
The illness figures also don’t count 120,000 workers who died from occupational diseases — everything from black lung to cancer caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, minute particles, or both.
Also not counted or inadequately counted: Musculoskeletal (ergonomic) injuries, heat-related illnesses and death and the complete toll from workplace violence, a particular hazard to nurses.
- The death rate for Latinos topped that for both Black people and white people. Speakers noted workers of color are overrepresented in the most-dangerous jobs.
- On-the-job death rates were highest in Wyoming (10.4 deaths/100,000 workers, three times the national rate), North Dakota (9/100,000), Montana (8/100,000), Louisiana (7.7/100,000), and New Mexico and Alaska (6.2/100,000 workers each),
Energy production dominates all those states except New Mexico, where it’s third. Energy industries had the third-highest death rate among all occupational groups (14.2 deaths/ 100,000 workers), trailing only farms, forests and fishing (19.5/100,000) and transportation and warehousing (14.5/100,000). Construction was fourth (9.4/100,000).
- OSHA’s still understaffed, even though it had 145 more job safety inspectors in 2021 than its 755 the year before. Those states which run their own OSHAs had 971 safety inspectors in 2021. Together, those two forces were so small and the number of workplaces, 10.8 million, was so large that it would take 190 years to inspect each U.S. workplace.
- When OSHA flags firms for job safety and health violations, the fines—often negotiated downwards between the agency and employers—are small costs of doing business: An average of $4,534 per serious violation that U.S. inspectors found, and half of that for state OSHA inspections. Only 128 cases of wrongful death on the job have been prosecuted since OSHA began.
The report recommended hiring more inspectors, and vastly increasing the fines, among other moves. “in a country with the technology we have, there should not be a need to chronicle thousands of deaths,” Shuler said. “This is not a back-in-the-day problem, it’s a today problem.”