Dying at Work in California

One year ago, Hans Petersen, a 30-year old solar panel installer, stepped backwards off the roof of a multi-story apartment building in San Pablo, California. He was not wearing personal fall protection equipment and fell to his death.

In October 2010, two Northern California healthcare workers died in separate incidents of workplace violence. Cynthia Barraca Palomata, a registered nurse, was attacked and killed by an inmate at the Martinez county jail. The same month, Donna Gross, a psychiatric technician, was strangled and killed by an inmate at Napa State Hospital.

Last month, a Stockton judge accepted a plea deal allowing criminal defendants to escape any jail time in the 2008 heat death of pregnant 17-year old farm worker Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez. Maria Isabel died of a heat-related illness after working nine straight hours, without access to water or shade, in the boiling heat of the grape fields of Stockton.

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of Workers Memorial Day — an international day of remembrance and action for people killed, disabled, injured, or made sick by their work — and this year the 40th anniversary of the implementation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Since OSHA was established, over 430,000 lives have been saved. But it has clearly not been enough. And workers know this better than anyone — 85% rank workplace safety first among labor standards… ahead of paid sick days, family and maternity leave, minimum wage, overtime pay, and the right to join a union.

These stories and others are included in “http://www.worksafe.org/Dying_at_Work_in_California.pdf”>Dying at Work in California,” a report jointly released today by Oakland-based Worksafe and L.A.-based SoCalCOSH. Along with the “hidden stories behind the numbers,” the report, in part, reveals:

  • There were over 300 worker deaths confirmed in California in 2009, though the true total is undoubtedly higher;
  • There were 491,900 work-related injuries reported in 2009, the latest year for which there is data. The injury rate was 4.2 injuries per 100 full-time workers and more than half were serious enough to require the worker to either miss work days, work with job restrictions, or be transferred to a job with other duties;
  • There were 35,300 reported cases of nonfatal work-related illness in 2009, with a rate of 30.2 cases reported per 10,000-full time workers;
  • Latino workers are at a much higher risk for death on the job than any other group, accounting for 46% of all work-related fatalities in LA County between 1992 and 2007; and
  • Workplace injuries and illnesses in the U.S. in 2008 were estimated to be $53.42 billion in workers’ compensation costs—roughly $1 billion per week.

The report examines these events and trends in detail, presenting both broad and narrow perspectives from which to view the current state of occupational safety and health. It also proposes short- and long-term strategies to prevent future tragedies from occurring.

This Workers Memorial Day, politicians and opinion makers – from President Obama to the California Legislature – agree that more needs to be done to keep us, our friends, families, loved ones, and communities safer on the job. “Dying at Work in California” is an attempt to contribute to this critical discussion.

As we remember those we have needlessly lost, it couldn’t be clearer that lives hang in the balance and sustained, committed action is needed. As labor leader Mother Jones famously said decades ago, we should “Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

It’s never been more true than today.