Tuesday, April 25, 2006

AFL-CIO Releases 15th Annual "Death On The Job" Report

The AFL-CIO has issued its 15th annual Death On The Job report (.pdf), an impressive piece of work (particularly considering that they're operating on half the staff they had a year ago.)

The purpose is to report on the state of workers' safety and health. First the good news: Workplace safety has improved dramatically in the 35 years since OSHA was created.

Now, the bad news. According to the report:
Progress in protecting workers’ safety and health is slowing, and for some groups of workers jobs are becoming more dangerous....As the economy, the workforce and hazards are changing, we are falling further and further behind in our efforts to protect workers from new and existing problems.
Here are the "highlights", if you want to call them that.

Workplace Injuries, Illness and Death
  • 5,703 5,764 workers were killed in the workplace due to traumatic injuries in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is an increase from the number of deaths in 2003, when 5,575 workplace deaths were reported. The rate of fatal injuries was 4.1 per 100,000 workers in 2004 compared to 4.0 per 100,000 workers in 2003, a 2 percent increase. The increase in the fatality rate in 2004 was the first increase in the national fatality rate since 1994.

  • Fatalities among foreign-born and native born Hispanic workers increased in 2004. Fatalities among Hispanic workers increased by 11 percent over 2003, with 883 902 fatalities among this group of workers. The rate of fatal injuries to Hispanic or Latino workers increased from 4.5 per 100,000 workers in 2003 to 4.9 5.0 per 100,000 workers in 2004, a 9 11 percent increase. The fatality rate among Hispanic or Latino workers in 2004 was 19 percent higher than the fatal injury rate for all U.S. workers.

  • 4.3 million injuries and illnesses were reported in private-sector workplaces in 2004, a slight decrease from 4.4 million in 2003. The manufacturing sector had the most injuries, accounting for 22 percent of the total, while health care and social assistance workers accounted for 16 percent of injuries and illnesses, followed by the retail trade at 15%.

  • There were over 400,000 musculoskeletal disorder cases (back, shoulder, wrist pain and disability) in 2004, again accounting for nearly one-third of all injuries and illnesses involving days away from work. (Note that OSHA has estimated that for every MSD reported, there is another that was not reported.)

  • Underreporting: The report also contains a lengthy discussion of how and why the BLS underestimates the number of workplace injuries and illnesses in the United States. We reported earlier this month about a Michigan State University study that showed that the BLS may miss two-thirds of all injuries and illnesses. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the fact that the data doesn't count many categories of workers. Then, there are built-in incentives for employers to underreport, including workers comp systems that will charge more if there's an increase in injuries, and OSHA's system of targeting inspections at companies that report high rates. Finally, of course, there are employer programs of providing incentives to workers for not reporting injuries, or punishing workers that do.
The problem is not new, nor is it going away, despite the fact that the problem is well known:
Year after year, all of these factors known to contribute to significant underreporting are ignored as the statistics are rattled off and administration officials take credit for policies that drove the numbers down. Yet it is these same policymakers who are responsible for ensuring a clear and accurate picture of injury and illness in our nation’s workplaces.

We must not allow inaccurate data to drive safety and health efforts. Only with an accurate picture of the nature of occupational safety and health problems may employers and policymakers work to reduce the occupational safety and health hazards that cause workplace injury, illness and death. Until policymakers require an accurate picture, occupational injuries will continue and there will be no clear strategy to address workplace hazards.
Cost of Workplace Injuries And Death

The Liberty Mutual Insurance company estimates that workplace injuries cost U.S. employers $50.3 billion – nearly $1 billion per week – in direct costs alone (medical and lost wage payments). Liberty Mutual data indicate businesses pay between $150.9 billion and $301.1 billion annually in direct and indirect (overtime, training and lost productivity) costs on workers’ compensation losses.

OSHA Enforcement and Coverage

Staffing: OSHA continues to be seriously understaffed. In FY 2005, there are at most 2,117 federal and state OSHA inspectors responsible for enforcing the law at approximately eight million workplaces. At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 117 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. Things are slightly better in the 21 state-plan states that run their own programs. It would only take them a combined 65 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once. Fewer inspections were conducted in FY 2005 than in FY 2004.

Penalties remain low with serious violations of the OSH Act carrying an average penalty of only $883. Although the number of willful violations issued by federal OSHA increased from 446 in FY 2004 to 726 in FY 2005, 303 of these willful violations were against the BP Texas City Refinery where a March 2005 explosion killed 15 workers and injured 170.

In FY 2005, the Department of Labor referred ten enforcement cases to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. Under the OSH Act, an employer may be subject to criminal prosecution in cases where a willful violation results in a worker’s death.

Regulatory (In)Action

This is a short section. OSHA issued only one major regulation last year, covering hexavalent chromium, and it was only done under court order. We've written a bit about this already (here, here and here), but in case you're still catching up, the standard was issued with permissible exposure limit (PEL) five times what was originally proposed by the agency; a level exposure which by OSHA’s own admission will leave workers at a significant risk of developing cancer. The final standard also failed to cover hexavalent chromium found in Portland cement, weakened worker access to exposure monitoring results, scaled back worker training requirements, and gave employers four years to implement engineering controls to protect workers.

Otherwise there's not much going on. OSHA still refuses to issue a standard requiring employers to pay for employees' gloves, boots and other personal protective equipment -- a standard that has been hanging around since the later days of the Clinton administration. OSHA says its working on five economically significant regulations (Crystalline Silica, Confined Spaces in Construction, Beryllium, Hearing Conservation for Construction Workers, and Electric Power Transmission and Distribution), but I wouldn't hold my breath.

The Job Safety Budget

To sum up:
President George W. Bush’s proposed FY 2007 budget for worker safety and health programs reflects the administration’s policies toward worker protection—it includes priorities and policies that favor employers over workers and voluntary compliance over enforcement.
OSHA: Bush proposed $484 million for FY 2007. Adjusting for inflation, this is about the same as FY 2006, but in real dollar terms (adjusting for inflation), in represents a $14.5 million (3%) cut since FY 2001 when the Bush administration took office. As might be expected, more money is going to voluntary effort for employers and compliance assistance, while standard setting and state enforcement programs have taken major hits, and every year Bush tries to eliminate the $10.3 million Susan Harwood Training Grant Program.

MSHA: The Bush administration is proposing $287 million for FY 2007, a 1.4% increase over 2006, adjusting for inflation, but representing a $13.6 million (9%) cut, since FY 2001 after adjusting for inflation.

NIOSH: Bush proposed a $250 million budget for NOISH, cutting NIOSH's funding by $4.5 million over FY 2006.


Hispanic and Foreign Born Workers: Immigrant workers face an epidemic of workplace injury and death and are at far greater risk of being killed or injured on the job than native born workers. Although the share of foreign-born employment has increased by 22 percent between 1996 and 2000, the share of fatal occupational injuries for this population increased by 43 percent. ,” Hispanic men have the greatest overall relative risk of fatal occupational injury of any gender or race/ethnicity group. 22 percent higher than the relative risk for all men.

Ergonomics: Ergonomic injuries still are the biggest job-safety hazard faced by workers, accounting for one-third of all injuries and illnesses. Yet despite Administration promises of a "comprehensive plan" for ergonomics following their 2001 repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standard, only three guidelines have been issued, and the agency has issued on 17 General Duty Clause citations over the past five years.

Pandemic Flu: Despite legitimate fears that the avian flu may develop into a pandemic that could make 30% of the entire population of the United States sick and kill 1.9 million persons, the federal government is failing to plan effectively how to protect the millions of health care workers, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, home health care workers and other responders will be needed to care for those who are ill from the virus.

The Pandemic Influenza Plan, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, dangerously recommends the use of surgical masks instead of NIOSH certified respirators, and HHS is also pushing the idea to reuse diposable respirators. Surgical masks will not protect workers against the flu, plus they are illegal under OSHA's respiratory protection standard.

Gulf Coast Hurricane Response Hazards: OSHA’s presence in the Gulf has largely been providing information and it has yet to enforce any of its health and safety standards and carry out its core responsibilities in the areas most heavily destroyed. This lack of enforcement will put workers at increased risk of injury and illness.

Work Organization: Workers in the United States now work more hours than workers in most of Western Europe and Japan. Evidence is growing that long hours of work cause more injuries and illnesses such as heart attacks, increased blood pressure, unhealthy weight gain, increased alcohol use and smoking.

The ways in which work is performed and is being restructured are also emerging as a potential safety and health hazard for workers. Machine-paced work, inadequate work-rest cycles, time pressures and repetitive work are associated with musculoskeletal disorders, increases in blood pressure and risks of cardiovascular mortality. The nurse shortage is resulting in long hours of work and high patient-to-nurse hospital staffing ratios which have been linked to increases in needle injuries and near misses, nurse burnout and elevated surgical patient mortality. In response, nine states have passed legislation placing limits on the amount of mandatory overtime nurses or health care workers can be forced to work (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia).

And finally,

What Needs To Be Done?
Very simply, workers need more job safety and health protection. The Bush administration’s lack of regulation and increased attention to employer assistance and voluntary compliance comes at the expense of worker safety and health. The OSH Act needs to be strengthened to make it easier to issue safety and health standards and to make the penalties for violating the law tougher. Workers need to be given a real voice in the workplace and real rights to participate in safety and health as part of a comprehensive safety program to identify and correct hazards. Coverage should be extended to the millions of workers who fall outside the Act’s protection.

Immediate action is needed to strengthen mine safety and health requirements to protect miners in the event of an emergency, to prohibit dangerous practices like the use of belt air for coal mine ventilation and to increase penalties for serious and repeated violations.

A standard still is needed to protect workers from ergonomic hazards and crippling repetitive strain injuries and back injuries, which continue to represent the most significant job-safety problem in the nation. OSHA needs to keep up with new hazards that face workers as workplaces and the nature of work change. Hazardous conditions in the service sector and in retail trade need greater attention. OSHA and MSHA need additional funding to develop and enforce standards and to expand worker safety and health training. Similarly, additional funds are needed for NIOSH to support enhanced research on safety and health problems.