Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect


This 2011 edition of “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” marks the 20th year the AFL-CIO has produced a report on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers.

This year is historic for workers’ safety and health. It is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 workers — most of them young immigrant women — were killed, trapped behind locked doors with no way to escape. This year is also the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the right of workers to safe jobs.

Since 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death, as demonstrated by the series of major workplace tragedies that occurred this past year: a horrific explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners — the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years; an explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed six workers and another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers; and the BP/Transocean Gulf Coast oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster.

In 2009, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,340 workers were killed on the job — an average of 12 workers every day — and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but this number understates the problem. The true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater — about 8 million to 12 million job injuries and illnesses each year.

The risk of job fatalities and injuries varies widely from state to state, in part due to the mix of industries. Montana led the country with the highest fatality rate (10.8 per 100,000), followed by Louisiana and North Dakota (7.2), Wyoming (6.8) and Nebraska (6.1). The lowest state fatality rate (0.9 per 100,000) was reported in New Hampshire, followed by Rhode Island (1.4), Arizona (1.8), Massachusetts (1.8) and Delaware (1.8). This compares with a preliminary national fatality rate of 3.3 per 100,000 workers in 2009.

Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of job fatalities, with a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2009. There were 668 fatal injuries among Latino workers, down from 804 in 2008. Fifty-nine percent of these fatalities (393 deaths) were among workers born outside the United States.

The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous — estimated at $159 billion to $318 billion a year for direct and indirect costs of disabling injuries.

The number of workplace inspectors is woefully inadequate. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state OSHA plans have a total of 2,218 inspectors (925 federal and 1,293 state inspectors) to inspect the 8 million workplaces under the OSH Act’s jurisdiction. Federal OSHA can inspect workplaces on average once every 129 years; the state OSHA plans can inspect them once every 67 years. The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 57,984 workers.

OSHA penalties are too low to deter violations. The average penalty for a serious violation of the law in FY 2010 was $1,052 for federal OSHA and $858 for the state plans. Even in cases of worker fatalities, penalties are incredibly weak. For FY 2010, the median initial total penalty in fatality cases investigated by federal OSHA was $7,000, with a median penalty after settlement of $5,600. For the OSHA state plans, the initial median total penalty was $5,188, reduced to $4,543 after settlement. Oregon had the lowest median current penalty for fatality investigations, with $1,500 in penalties assessed, followed by Wyoming ($2,063) and Kentucky ($2,275). New Hampshire had the highest median current penalty ($142,000), followed by Minnesota ($26,050) and Missouri ($21,000).

Criminal penalties under the OSHA law are weak. They are limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker death and are misdemeanors. Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail. During this time there were more than 360,000 worker deaths. By comparison, in FY 2010 there were 346 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 289 defendants charged, resulting in 72 years of jail time and $41 million in penalties — more cases, fines and jail time in one year than during OSHA’s entire history.

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The text above is the 20th Edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, published by the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department in April 2011. It is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.