4,340 Killed on the Job; Job Safety Laws ‘Must Be Strengthened’

Forty years after the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), “there is much more work to be done….The job safety laws must be strengthened,” finds the 2011 AFL-CIO annual job safety report “Death on the Job,” released this week to commemorate Workers Memorial Day. (Click here for the full report.)

In 2009 (the latest figures available), 4,340 workers were killed on the job—an average of 12 workers a day—and an estimated 50,000 died of occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in private and state and local workplaces. But the report says the 4.1 million “understates the problem,” and the actual number is more likely 8 million to 12 million.

The safety report estimates that since the OSH Act become law 40 years ago tomorrow, it has saved an estimated 431,000 lives. The nation’s two mining laws, the 42-year-old Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and the 34-year-old Mine Safety and Health Act, have saved thousands more.

Last year’s string of major workplace tragedies, however, shows the desperate need for stronger safety and health rules coupled with tougher enforcement. Those disasters included the Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners, an explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed six workers, another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers and the BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil rig explosion that killed 11 and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster. Says the report:

The nation must renew the commitment to protect workers from injury, disease and death and make this a high priority. 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 number of workers killed on the job fell in 2009 and the rate of on-the-job deaths dropped, 3.3 per 100,000 workers, down from 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2008. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the economy was a major factor as the recession resulted in declines in hours worked, particularly in construction and other industries that historically have experienced large numbers of fatalities.

A state-by-state breakdown of job deaths and injuries in “Death on the Job” finds that Montana led the country with the highest rate of worker fatalities in 2009, with Louisiana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska following close behind. The report also finds that Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of dying on the job, with a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in fiscal year (FY) 2009.

The report finds the size of Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s  (OSHA’s) inspection staff is “woefully inadequate,”  with just 2,218 inspectors to keep tabs on the 8 million workplaces under OSHA’s jurisdiction. It also says OSHA penalties for employers that violate safety and health laws are too small to deter violations, with an average fine of just $1,052 per serious violation. Even in cases involving worker fatalities, the median total penalty was a measly $5,600.

Criminal penalties under OSHA are also weak. While there were 346 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 239 defendants charged in FY 2010, only 84 cases related to worker deaths have been prosecuted since 1970.

“Death on the Job” says the Obama administration is refocusing OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) on protecting workers and enforcing safety laws after years of neglect by the Bush administration that saw the agencies’ budgets cut, withdrawal and repeal of safety standards and a reliance on voluntary employer compliance with job safety laws instead of strong enforcement.

House Republican are working to make deep cuts to OSHA to help fund tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. Business groups and their Republican supporters on Capitol Hill are trying to block new job safety rules that could save workers’ lives. At the state level, legislators in at least 10 states have launched attacks on workplace safety laws.

“Our work is never done when it comes to workplace safety—the tragedies in the last year at Massey Energy’s Big Branch mine and the BP Gulf Coast oil rig have shown us that,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

But recently worker protections have come under attack by big business groups and Republicans claiming that we can’t afford to protect American families. This Workers Memorial Day, we need to get one thing straight: Safety regulations don’t kill jobs, but unsafe jobs do kill workers.

Today, in more than a hundred vigils, rallies and memorials in 25 states, America’s working families will commemorate Workers Memorial Day and honor workers who died or were injured on the job in the past year. Click here for a list of events.