Although workplace safety is the No.1 priority for at least 85% of American workers, the issue gets little public or political support, according to a new study from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
For 85-89% of American workers, workplace safety ranked ahead of family and maternity leave, minimum wage, sick and overtime pay, and the right to join a union, according to “Public Attitudes Towards and Experiences with Workplace Safety.”
On the other hand, the public thinks about workplace safety only sporadically, usually when disastrous accidents occur—and sometimes not even then, the survey showed. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, far more public and media attention focused on the spill than on the workers who perished, noted NORC.
‘Accidents Taken for Granted’
"Workplace safety is too often ignored or accidents taken for granted," said Dr. Tom W. Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey. "It is striking that coverage in the media and public opinion polls has virtually ignored the 11 workers killed by the blowout and destruction of the drilling platform."
Had BP made worker safety a priority to begin with, Smith said, “not only would the lives of the 11 workers been saved, but the whole environmental disaster would have been averted."
The low level of public interest has translated into little political action on the issue, the study noted. Politicians generally rank the issue relatively low on their list of priorities.
“Workplace safety has been largely neglected both by policy makers and by those measuring public attitudes and the experiences of workers,” reports the survey.
The number of workers who died on the job in 2009 fell 17% from 2008, but that was largely the result of fewer hours worked amid the recession, the U.S. Labor Department reported Aug. 19 in its preliminary annual assessment.
Meanwhile, the NORC study reported a high number of reported workplace injuries.
The Stress Factor
Although most workers say they are satisfied with safety conditions at work, they also report job-related stress and other conditions that contribute to injury. The most recent NORC study on job-related stress, done in 2006, reported that 13% of workers found their jobs always stressful and 21% found them stressful.
In the new study, 12% of workers reported an on-the-job injury during the past year, and 37% said they had required medical treatment at one time for a workplace injury.
"Exhaustion, dangerous working conditions and other negative experiences at work are reported by many workers," Smith said. "Such conditions mean that workplace accidents are far from rare."
The analysis by NORC, a leading academic survey organization, was conducted for the Public Welfare Foundation, a Washington DC-based nonprofit that supports efforts to improve workers' rights.
‘Stark Shortcomings’ in Oversight
"Workplace safety should be a constant concern,” said Robert Shull, the foundation’s Program Officer for Workers’ Rights. “Given the importance that workers themselves place on this issue, we should not have to mourn the loss of people on the job before government and employers take more effective measures to ensure that employees can go home safely after work."
Noting that there are currently about 2,400 federal and state inspectors to monitor about 8.6 million workplaces (about one for every 3,500 companies), the study concluded:
“The lack of serious attention to the problem of workplace safety is underscored by the stark shortcomings in the existing regulatory system. Under the present regulatory set-up, it is impossible to come close to enforcing even the current safety standards.”