Occupational hazards

By Michelle Chen Apr 28, 2009

With all the panic about pandemic flu, it’s easy to lose sight of more quotidian hazards. The AFL-CIO’s new report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” may help put things in perspective. The report, based on 2006 and 2007 federal data, shows that despite some overall decreases in workplace deaths, including in the manufacturing and construction sectors, alarming patterns persist:

"On average, 15 workers were fatally injured and more than 10,959 workers were injured or made ill each day of 2007. These statistics do not include deaths from occupational diseases, which claim the lives of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers each year."

(A timely tidbit: “A recent survey conducted by the AFL-CIO and unions on the preparedness of health care facilities to protect health care workers in the event of a flu pandemic found preparations sorely lacking.”) Latino and immigrant workers continue to be extremely vulnerable to injury or death on the job. Injury deaths among Latino workers have jumped by 76 percent between1992 and 2007, even as overall workplace fatalities fell during the same period. The fatal injury rate was about 20 percent higher for Latinos than for all U.S. workers. (Texas, California and Florida were the deadliest states for Latino workers.) Additionally, in 2007, the number of Black worker fatalities reached it highest count since 1999. The workplace is often not just dangerous, but hostile—raising questions about workers’ exposure to violence. Worker deaths “caused by assaults and violent acts” grew from 788 to 864 from 2006 to 2007. Among immigrant workers, deaths from assaults and violent acts were more common than deaths from falls and “contact with objects and equipment.” The statistics predate the current recession, but presumably, growing economic desperation will leave workers with less power to escape or challenge workplace hazards. Workers of color may be even more constrained amidst the additional threats of immigration crackdowns, wage theft, exploitative treatment by employers and language barriers. And they shouldn’t expect much help from federal regulators, either. In fiscal year 2008, about 2000 federal and state inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were responsible for about 8 million workplaces. The AFL-CIO estimates that with their current resources, “it would take federal OSHA 137 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.” So unless Congress and the White House resuscitate the labor regulatory system with serious funding, federal action will come far too late to protect the most vulnerable. That’s one more man-made hazard that workers shouldn’t have to live with. Image: 1937 WPA poster, via Creativepro