Workers Memorial Day and New Report Highlight Risk to U.S. Workers


April 28 marked Workers Memorial Day and the 40th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). On the same day, the AFL-CIO released its annual report on the state of the health and safety of American workers, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.

Workers Memorial Day was first celebrated in 1989 and is an international day of remembrance of workers who have died or been injured on the job, according to AFL-CIO's website. The date is especially notable this year because of OSHA's anniversary. 2011 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (March 25) and the one-year anniversaries of two other historic incidents, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster (April 20) and the Upper Big Branch mine collapse (April 5).

Despite these reminders of workers maimed and killed on the job, there is a pronounced anti-regulatory environment on Capitol Hill and continuous attacks from corporations and business associations, which argue that a "tsunami" of regulations prevents job creation and hinders economic recovery.

Death on the Job annually tracks statistics on the numbers of workers who die or are injured on the job and highlights the most dangerous industries. The 2011 edition of the report notes that "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 most recent data in the report on deaths and injuries are from 2009 and rely mostly on preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to BLS, on average, 12 workers die each day on the job. An estimated 50,000 workers die each year from occupational diseases.

In 2009, there were about 4,340 worker fatalities, down from the 5,214 deaths reported in 2008. "Industry sectors with the highest fatality rates were agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (26.0 per 100,000), mining (12.7 per 100,000) and transportation and warehousing (12.1 per 100,000)," according to the report.

The report argues that the BLS statistics are understated due to the lack of reporting or underreporting of injuries by employers. The report notes:

In 2009, more than 4.1 million workers across all industries, including state and local government, had work-related injuries and illnesses that were reported by employers, with 3.3 million injuries and illnesses reported in private industry. Due to limitations in the injury reporting system and underreporting of workplace injuries, this number understates the problem. The true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater—or 8 million to 12 million injuries and illnesses a year.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon and created OSHA, which began operations on April 28, 1971. Death on the Job contains data on OSHA standards, compliance staffing, and investigations, as well as data on state-level OSHA actions.

For example, the report contains a table on federal OSHA safety and health compliance staffing from 1973-2009, which displays total compliance staffing, the number of workers, and the number of compliance staff per million workers. These numbers illustrate, for example, that compliance staffing declined for six of the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, even though employment rose through 2007 before the most recent recession took hold.

Under the Obama administration, total compliance staffing and the number of compliance officers per million workers has been restored to about where it was at the beginning of the Bush administration, despite the decline in the number of workers during the recession. These numbers pale in comparison, however, to the peak numbers of compliance officers in the late 1970s. The report laments current enforcement numbers at OSHA, further debunking the anti-regulatory arguments that agencies, and particularly OSHA, are stifling business:

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.