Workplace Deaths An Epidemic

Tom O'Connor Amid the horrific scenes of the BP oil spill, we should not neglect the fact that 11 workers died on the rig when it exploded April 20. Nor should we neglect the daily carnage that workers suffer on the job in America.

It’s been a very bad couple of months for worker safety: Seven dead in Washington following the explosion of the Tesoro refinery.

Six dead in Connecticut in the Kleen Energy power plant explosion.

Twenty-nine dead in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

And 11 dead in the Gulf of Mexico oil rig collapse.

But behind the headlines on the latest disaster is a far quieter but equally disturbing story.

In the same week as the Massey mine disaster in West Virginia, local media outlets around the country carried dozens of stories with headlines like “Man Killed in Trench Collapse” or “Fall from Roof Fatal.” The toll of these routine incidents _14 deaths a day from injuries in America — is obscured because most occur one death at a time.

Month after month, workers die, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration slaps the employer on the wrist (a median penalty of only $3,675 per death in 2007).

Like those who died on the BP oil rig or in the Massey mine, the vast majority of deaths on the job are entirely preventable. The problem is not technical but political: Our national system for ensuring health and safety in the workplace is broken.

We know how to prevent trenches from collapsing — by using trench boxes to shore them up. We know how to prevent falls from roofs from becoming fatal — by properly using safety harnesses. We know how to prevent coal mine explosions by minimizing the buildup of coal dust and monitoring methane concentrations.

But employers routinely refuse to use these established precautions, and OSHA does not force them to.

So why aren’t our laws enforced? First, it’s a problem of resources: OSHA’s budget for enforcement is pitiful, a situation that has worsened since deregulation began in the Reagan era. In the late 1970s, OSHA had one inspector per 30,000 covered workers; today it is one per 60,000.

Second, obstacles to any new workplace safety rules, put in place by deregulation ideologues in Congress, have brought OSHA to a standstill. In the last 13 years, OSHA has issued exactly one new health standard establishing the maximum safe exposure level to a chemical, and that under the duress of a court order.

Third, OSHA’s promise that all workers have the right to speak up about unsafe or unhealthy conditions without retaliation is a cruel joke. The agency’s whistleblower protection program is totally ineffective: Non-union workers who file OSHA complaints routinely lose their jobs.

The solutions to this sorry state of affairs are not complex. Congress should boost the budget for OSHA enforcement. Plus, it should protect whistleblowers and require serious penalties for egregious violators.

Under current law, even the worst case of employer neglect can result in no more than a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum six months in jail. That’s got to change.

There is a bill sitting in Congress that would accomplish much of this. But the Protecting America’s Workers Act is stalled in committee while Congress members pound their fists and demand “something be done.” Now is the time for action, before more workers die.

Reprinted with permission by The Progressive, Inc.

About The Author: Tom O’Connor is executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

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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.