The Health and Safety of America’s Workers Is at Risk

May 3, 2018 | 12:55 pm
Photo: Airman Connor J Marth/US Air Force
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Saturday, April 28, may have seemed like just another Saturday. Some of us likely slept a little later and then got on to those household chores and tasks we couldn’t get to during the week. Some of us enjoyed some leisure time with family and friends. Many of us got up and went to work—maybe even to a second or third job.

But April 28 is not just another day. Here in the US and around the world, it’s Workers’ Memorial Day—the day each year that recognizes, commemorates and honors workers who have suffered and died of work-related injuries and illnesses. It is also a day to renew the fight for safe workplaces. Because too many workers lose their lives, their health, their livelihoods or their ability to fully engage in the routine activities of daily living because of hazards, exposures and unsafe conditions at work.

Unless you know someone who was killed or seriously injured on the job, you probably don’t give workplace safety much thought. Perhaps you think work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses are infrequent, or only affect workers in demonstrably risky jobs—like mining or construction. The actual statistics, however, tell a different story. (For a more detailed and visual look, see this Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] charts package.)

Fatalities: In 2016 the number of recorded fatal work injuries was 5,190. On average, that’s 14 people dying every day. In the United States. It’s also 7 percent more than the number of fatal injuries reported in 2015 and the highest since 2008. Most of these deaths were the result of events involving transportation, workplace violence, falls, equipment, toxic exposures, and explosions. And the 2016 data reveal increases in all but one of these event categories. That’s not going in the right direction.

Non-fatal cases: According to the BLS, private industry employers reported 2.9 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2016, nearly one third of which were serious enough to result in days away from work—the median being 8 days. For public sector workers, state and local governments reported another 752,600 non-fatal injuries and illnesses for 2016.

Costs: And then there’s the enormous economic toll that these events exact on workers, their families and their employers. According to 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the most serious workplace injuries cost US companies nearly $60 billion per year.

But that’s just a drop in the bucket. The National Safety Council estimates the larger economic costs of fatal and non-fatal work injuries in 2015 at $142.5 billion. Lost time estimates are similarly staggering: 99 million production days lost in 2015 due to work injuries (65 million of which occurred in 2015), with 50 million estimated days lost in future years due to on-the-job deaths and permanently disabling injuries that occurred in 2015.

And even these costs don’t come close to revealing the true burden, as they do not include the costs of care and losses due to occupational illness and disease. A noteworthy and widely cited 2011 study estimated the number of fatal and non-fatal occupational illnesses in 2007 at more than 53,000 and nearly 427,000, respectively, with cost estimates of $46 billion and $12 billion, respectively.

Who foots the bill and bears these enormous costs? Primarily injured workers, their families, and tax-payer supported safety net programs. Workers’ compensation programs cover only a fraction. See more here and here.

The other part of the story

As sobering as these data and statistics are, they tell only part of the story; the true burden of occupational injury and illness is far higher. Numerous studies find significant under-reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses (see hereherehereherehere). Reporting of occupational disease is particularly fraught, as many if not most physicians are not trained to recognize or even inquire about the hazards and exposures their patients may have encountered on their jobs.

Nor do the statistics reveal the horror, loss, pain, and suffering these injuries and diseases entail. In the words of Dr. Irving Selikoff, a tireless physician advocate for worker health and safety, “Statistics are people with the tears wiped away.”

Just imagine having to deal with the knowledge that a loved one was suffocated in a trench collapse; asphyxiated by chemical fumes; shot during a workplace robbery; seriously injured while working with a violent patient or client; killed or injured from a fall or a scaffolding collapse; or living with an amputation caused by an unguarded machine.

Or the heartache of watching a loved one who literally can’t catch a breath because of work-related respiratory disease. Or is incapacitated by a serious musculoskeletal injury. Or has contracted hepatitis B or HIV because of exposure to a blood-borne pathogen at work.

And here’s the kicker: virtually all work-related injuries and illnesses are preventable. There’s no shortage of proven technologies, strategies and approaches to preventing them. From redesign, substitution and engineering solutions that eliminate or otherwise control hazards and exposures to safety management systems, worker training programs, protective equipment, and medical screening and surveillance programs, there are multiple paths to prevention. And, as a former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, David Michaels, recently wrote in Harvard Business Review, safety management and operational excellence are intimately linked.

Historic progress now at risk

The Good News: It’s important to note and remember that workplace health and safety in the US is a lot better than it used to be before Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and even since 2000. This progress has resulted large measure from the struggles of labor unions and working people, along with the efforts of federal and state agencies. Workplace fatalities and injuries have declined significantly, and exposures to toxic chemicals have been reduced.

It is also a testament to the effectiveness of health and safety regulations and science-based research. We can thank the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for many of these protections and safeguards. We must also acknowledge and thank the persistence, energy, and efforts of the workers, unions, researchers, and advocates that have pushed these agencies along the way.

The Red Flags: There are numerous indications that this progress will be slowed or even reversed by a Trump administration intent on rolling back public protections and prioritizing industry interests over the public interest. For example:

  • Right off the bat, the president issued his two-for-one executive order requiring agencies to rescind two regulations for each new one they propose. So, to enact new worker health and safety protections, two others would have to go.
  • OSHA has delayed implementation or enforcement of several worker protection rules that address serious health risks and were years in the making—i.e., silica, the cause of an irreversible and debilitating lung disease, and beryllium, a carcinogen and also the source of a devastating lung disease.
  • OSHA has left five advisory and committees to languish—the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health; the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee; the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health; the Federal Advisory Council; and the Maritime Advisory Committee—thus depriving the agency of advice from independent experts and key stakeholders.  Earlier this week, a number of groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Acosta asking him to stop sidelining the advice of independent experts.
  • President Trump signed a resolution that permanently removed the ability of OSHA to cite employers with a pattern of record keeping violations related to workplace injuries and illnesses. Yes, permanentlybecause it was passed under the Congressional Review ActAnd Secretary Acosta recently seemed hesitant to commit not to rescind OSHA’s rule to improve electronic recordkeeping of work-related injuries and illnesses.
  • Having failed in efforts to cut some worker health and safety protections and research in his FY18 budget proposal, the president is going at it again with his FY19 proposal. He is calling for the elimination of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and OSHA’s worker safety and health training program, Susan Harwood Training Grants. There is, however, a tiny bit of good news for workers in President Trump’s proposed budget for OSHA; it includes a small (2.4 percent) increase for enforcement, as well as a 4.2 percent increase for compliance assistance. Of note, employers much prefer compliance assistance over enforcement activities.
  • The president’s budget also proposes to cut research by 40 percent at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—the only federal agency solely devoted to research on worker health and safety—and eliminate the agency’s educational research centers, agriculture, forestry and fishing research centers and external research programs.
  • He has also proposed taking NIOSH out of CDC, perhaps combining it later with various parts of the National Institutes of Health. Never mind that NIOSH was established by statute as an entity by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has also jumped on the regulatory reform bandwagon. The agency has indicated its intent to review and evaluate its regulations protecting coal miners from black lung disease. This at a time when NIOSH has identified the largest cluster of black lung disease ever reported.
  • EPA actions are also putting workers at risk. Late last year, the EPA announced that it will revise crucial protections for more than two million farmworkers and pesticide applicators, including reconsidering the minimum age requirements for applying these toxic chemicals. Earlier in the year, the agency overruled its own scientists when it decided not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, thus perpetuating its serious risk to farmworkers, not to mention their children and users of rural drinking water. And the agency has delayed implementation of its Risk Management Plan rule to prevent chemical accidents for nearly two years.
  • The Department of Interior is following up on an order from President Trump to re-evaluate regulations put into place by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which killed 11 offshore workers and created the largest marine oil spill in United States’ drilling history.
  • And then there’s a new proposal at the US Department of Agriculture that seeks to privatize the pork inspection system and remove any maximum limits on line speeds in pig slaughter plants. Meat packing workers in pork slaughter houses already have higher injury and illness rates than the national average. Increasing line speeds only increases their risk.

Remember and renew

The Trump administration makes no bones about its (de)regulatory agenda. The president boasts about cutting public safeguards and protections, and his agency heads are falling right in line. Our working men and women are the economic backbone of our nation. They produce the goods and services we all enjoy, depend on, and often take for granted. They are our loved ones, our friends, and our colleagues. They deserve to come home from work safe and healthy.

Worker Memorial Day is a time to pause and remember workers who have given and lost so much in the course of doing their jobs. It is also a time to renew our vigilance and be ready to use our voices, votes and collective power to demand and defend rules, standards, policies and science-based safeguards that protect our loved ones at work. Let’s hold our elected leaders and their appointees accountable for the actions they take—or don’t take—to protect this most precious national resource.

This post originally appeared in Scientific American.