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Hidden Tragedy: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses
The number of workplace deaths across the U.S. continues to rise, something it has done every year since 2004. AFL-CIO released its annual report Wednesday—Death in the Workplace: The Toll of Neglect—which covered 2010. The report notes that the number of deaths in 2010 was up 149 over 2009, to a recent high of 4,690—meaning an average of 13 workers die on the job every day in the U.S. On top of that, an estimated 50,000 additional workers died in 2010 because of occupational diseases. More than 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses were also reported, but it is estimated that the real number is much higher, between 7.6 million and 11.4 million annually.
The risk of job fatalities and injuries varies widely from state to state, in part due to the mix of industries. West Virginia led the country with the highest fatality rate (13.1 per 100,000), followed by Wyoming (11.9), Alaska (11.8), South Dakota (8.6) and North Dakota (8.4). The lowest state fatality rate (0.9 per 100,000) was reported in New Hampshire, followed by Massachusetts (1.7), Rhode Island (1.8) and California, Delaware and New Jersey (2.0). This compares with a national fatality rate of 3.6 per 100,000 workers in 2010.
Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of job fatalities, with a fatality rate of 3.9 per 100,000 workers in 2010. There were 707 fatal injuries among Latino workers, down from 713 in 2009. Sixty-two percent of these fatalities (441 deaths) were among workers born outside the United States.
The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous—estimated at $250 billion to $300 billion a year.
The report notes that one of the key reasons for the recent increases in workplace death and injury is the weakening of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which on the federal level only has the workforce and funding to inspect each workplace once every 131 years. State regulators are only a little better off. Additionally, OSHA doesn't have the ability to punish violators in a way that will make them improve dangerous situations.
Eight years of neglect and inaction by the Bush administration seriously eroded safety and health protections. Standards were repealed, withdrawn or blocked. Major hazards were not addressed. The job safety budget was cut. Voluntary compliance replaced strong enforcement. In the absence of strong government oversight and enforcement, many employers cut back their workplace safety and health efforts.
The Obama administration has returned OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to their mission to protect workers’ safety and health. The president appointed strong, pro-worker safety and health advocates to head the agencies—Dr. David Michaels at OSHA and Joe Main at MSHA.
The Obama administration has moved forward with new initiatives to strengthen enforcement and with some new safety and health standards on job hazards. The administration has increased the job safety budget and hired hundreds of new inspectors, restoring the cuts made during the Bush administration.
But with the election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, progress in safety and health is threatened. Business groups and Republicans have launched a major assault on regulations and have targeted key OSHA and MSHA rules.
In the face of these attacks, progress on developing and issuing many important safety and health rules has stalled.
Read the full report.