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Labor Slams OSHA on Worker Protection

Friday, April 29, 2011

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Not everyone is jumping on the political bandwagon that is clamoring to “rein in” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The AFL-CIO says that OSHA needs more authority—and that the lives of tens of thousands of workers each year are at stake.

The 12.2 million-member federation of 56 national and international labor unions is calling for more safety inspectors, higher fines for violations, and the passage of a law to beef up the agency.

‘Woefully Inadequate’

“The number of workplace inspectors is woefully inadequate,” the labor federation reports in the new 20th edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, its annual examination of U.S. worker safety and health protection. The report, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was released Thursday (April 28), which was designated Workers Memorial Day.

Federal and state OSHAs have a total of just 2,218 inspectors for eight million workplaces—one inspector for every 57,984 workers, the labor group says.

“Federal OSHA can inspect workplaces on average once every 129 years; the state OSHA plans can inspect them once every 67 years,” the report says.

Underreporting Seen

Although workplace death and injury rates have declined dramatically in the last generation, the report notes that 4,340 workers were killed on the job (an average of 12 per day), about 50,000 died from occupational diseases, and more than 4.1 million reported work-related injuries and illnesses in 2009—numbers that the group contends are underreported by one-half or even two-thirds.

The AFL-CIO report calls OSHA penalties for worker deaths “incredibly weak.”

The last year included the highly publicized deaths of 29 West Virginia coal miners in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years; 11 workers in the BP Deep Horizon blast; six workers in the Kleen Energy Plant explosion in Connecticut; and seven in the Tesoro Refinery blast in Washington State, the report notes.

Death Rates

The preliminary national worker fatality rate in 2009 was 3.3 per 100,000 workers, the report said.
But averages don’t tell the whole story, as the record varies widely from state to state, due to the mix of industries and workers. The death rate among Latino workers in 2009, for example, was 3.7 per 100,000, AFL-CIO reported.

Rates also vary by industry. Construction ranked third in fatalities, with 12.2 deaths per 100,000 workers (more than three times the average), exceeded only by mining (23.5) and agriculture (22.7).

Montana had the nation’s 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 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).

The direct and indirect cost of job injuries and illnesses is between $159 billion to $318 billion a year, the report says.

‘Incredibly Weak’ Penalties

Part of the problem can be traced to lack of sanctions for wrongdoing, AFL-CIO contends. OSHA penalties law are “incredibly weak” for fatalities and too low to deter lesser violations, the group says.

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, AFL-CIO said. In fatal cases, the median penalty after settlement was $5,600 for federal OSHA and $4,543 for state OSHAs.

Oregon’s median current penalty for fatality investigations is just $1,500, followed by Wyoming ($2,063) and Kentucky ($2,275). New Hampshire has the highest median current penalty ($142,000), followed by Minnesota ($26,050) and Missouri ($21,000), the report said

Criminal penalties are limited to misdemeanor charges related to willful violations that result in a worker’s death.

Although more than 360,000 workers have died since OSHA began in 1970, just 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail, the report says.

By contrast, it adds, 346 criminal cases were filed under federal environmental laws and 289 defendants charged in FY 2010, 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.”

Political Progress

The report accuses the George W. Bush administration of “eight years of neglect and inaction” on worker safety, with standards repealed, withdrawn or blocked; budgets cut; and voluntary compliance encouraged over enforcement.

Although the Obama administration has increased the job safety budget and hired hundreds of inspectors, but the election of the Republican-dominated House may turn back the clock, the report contends.

“[P]rogress in safety and health is threatened,” it says. “Attempts already have been made in this Congress to slash OSHA’s budget, with proposed cuts that would decimate OSHA’s already-inadequate enforcement.”

The report calls for passage of the long-stalled Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to expand coverage, increase protections for whistleblowers, and increase penalties for certain violators.


Tagged categories: Fatalities; Health and safety; Labor; OSHA

Comment from Gregory Stoner, (5/2/2011, 11:11 AM)

As a H&S Trainer for almost 20 years it is obvious to me that we have not turned the corner in workers attitudes to H&S. They believe it can't happen to them and are reinforced by their own contractors turning a blind eye towards enforcement. Contractors have not learned the lesson that healthly/safe workers are more productive, need less time off due to injuries and will last longer on the job(maybe even want to stay longer because they are healther). Education, education, education is still the most promising long term solution along with the threat of enforcement. Unfortunately you need some stick with the carrot.

Comment from Car F., (5/3/2011, 1:00 PM)

Life seems to matter little vis-a-vis the bottom line by greedy employers. The ridiculous low penalties impossed by the authorities for loss of life, are an open invitation to continue these dangerous practices, it is probably cheaper to pay a penalty than to protect worker's lives. If a petty criminal who stole a pizza can get mandatory jail sentences, why not imposed similar penalties for irresponsable employers who kill workers?

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