History of Workplace Safety for Black Americans

Historically, Black Americans have faced significant discrimination and have been refused equity in our society, including in workplace safety and health. At the same time, they’ve also been at the forefront of fighting for stronger workplace protections for all Americans.

From the Atlanta Washerwomen to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the Black miners who all took a stand against abusive labor practices — and countless others — we honor their leadership and sacrifices during Black History Month as we continue to fulfill our mission to improve workplace safety and health. 

It was 55 years ago this month, in Memphis, Tennessee, when two Black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, died after being crushed when the truck they were working on malfunctioned. When the city failed to respond to this tragedy more than a week later, 1,300 Black workers from the city’s public works department went on strike to demand better wages and safer working conditions.

In support of the workers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the strike and played a key role in leading nonviolent protests to help the workers and the city come to an agreement for better wages and better work protections. In fact, he was in Memphis to support the workers when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The event became part of the larger civil rights movement. 

Fast forward to today: While we’ve made great strides in workplace safety, too many workers are still subjected to conditions as dangerous as what Cole and Walker faced.

In 2021, more than 14 workers were killed on the job every day. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the share of fatalities among Black workers reached an all-time high at 12.6% in 2021, increasing to 653 from 541 in 2020, with most in the transportation industry or related to workplace violence.

The disparity is especially clear in the fatality rates for major demographics: Black or African American workers had a fatality rate of 4.0 per 100,000 full-time workers, compared with an average of 3.6 for all workers. 

The rise in fatal injuries and illnesses links to racial disparities and social issues Black Americans face, such as limited education opportunities, lower earnings and more exposure to hazardous jobs than white Americans. They are also more likely to fear retaliation for speaking up about health and safety concerns at work. 

Last September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administrated hosted our first Workers’ Voice Summit in Washington, D.C. We heard from workers across the country about cases of job steering, where employers assign workers of color to the most dangerous, dirtiest and most unpleasant jobs.

No worker should ever be at any disadvantage because of the color of their skin.

That is why OSHA is taking steps to expand our effort to those disproportionately impacted by injuries and illnesses while on the job — including Black workers — in high-hazard industries like construction, health care and warehousing.   

We are collaborating with stakeholders, Black-led union groups and worker centers to better understand how we can make resources more accessible, and equip workers with proper tools, knowledge and training to ensure equitable enforcement.

With the right resources and support, workers can raise their voices with confidence and trust OSHA will listen and support their needs. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, we know we must do more to create equity and safety for all workers.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during the Memphis sanitation strike, “whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.”

If each employer implemented that level of humanity in their business today, we could see more equity for everyone and safer workplaces. 

This blog originally appeared on the website for the U.S. Department of Labor on February 17, 2023.

About the Author: Doug Parker is the assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.