New Health, Safety Data Drives Advocates’ Push For Stricter OSHA Policies

New federal health and safety data showing an increase in the number of workplace injury and deaths is prompting new calls from labor and other advocates for policymakers to strengthen OSHA’s policies and practices, including issuance of long-awaited standards, increased enforcement and inspection funds and stepped up focus on immigrant, temporary and older workers, as well as those in the public and oil & gas sectors.

Relying largely on recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2014, the AFL-CIO, as well as the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH), April 27 released separate reports detailing increases in workplace injuries that the groups said show the need for a host of stricter OSHA policies and practices aimed at better protecting workers.

“America’s workers shouldn’t have to choose between earning a livelihood and risking their life, yet every day too many end up on the wrong end of that choice,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “Corporations are prospering while working people suffer because of corporate negligence and insufficient government oversight. We must go beyond mourning those we’ve lost, and take bold, decisive action to ensure that a day’s work brings opportunity, not the risk of death or injury.”

The groups’ calls, issued to coincide with Workers Memorial Week, appear to provide a workplace safety advocacy agenda for labor unions and health and safety advocates heading into the November presidential and congressional elections.

In its report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, AFL-CIO listed a series of steps policymakers needed to take to address the data. For example, the labor federation urged OSHA to issue long-awaited rules governing injury reporting, beryllium, combustible dust and infectious disease and increase penalties for violations.

But the group also recommended that a host of other growing workplace risks need to be addressed, noting that ergonomic hazards, infectious diseases and chemical exposures pose serious risks, “but are largely unregulated.”

AFL-CIO also called for “enhanced enforcement and development of an OSHA workplace violence standard” to address the “growing and serious” threats, especially to women workers and workers in the health care industry.

Both groups also urged policymakers to increase funding for both federal and state OSHA inspectors, noting that regulators lack sufficient resources. For example, AFL-CIO noted in its report that there are a total of 1,840 state and federal inspectors available to inspect the estimated 8 million work sites under OSHA’s jurisdiction, which translates into about one inspector for every 74,760 workers.

The AFL-CIO also urged the agency to increase its penalties, noting that the average penalty for a serious violation was $2,148.

The agency’s current administration has been working to address those two limitations on enforcement. For example, the administration has been touting its stricter injury reporting rule, suggesting it could obviate the need for increased inspectors in some cases.

And officials are also developing an interim rule to increase penalties after Congress authorized the move in a budget deal enacted at the end of 2015.

OSHA chief David Michaels warned recently that the many businesses that are still avoiding the new reporting rule’s requirements could face increased noncompliance penalties once the agency raises its penalty amounts.

Worker Fatalities

Based on their reviews of BLS and other data, the two reports generally found similar results. Both found 4,821 workers were killed on the job in 2014, with the fatal injury rate rising to 3.4 per 100,000 workers, up from 3.3 per 100,000 in 2013.

But AFL-CIO notes in its report that the number of deaths due to fatal injury is dwarfed by the estimated 50,000 workers who die as a result of occupational diseases. That means that 150 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions, the report says.

Workplace illnesses and injuries also increased. Nearly 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, though AFL-CIO says underreporting is “widespread” and estimated the “true toll” is 7.6 million to 11.4 million injuries each year.

States with the highest fatality rates, the group found, were Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota and Mississippi.

Given the high rates in Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska, three major oil and gas producing states, it was not surprising the reports found high incidence of workplace injuries in that sector. The AFL-CIO noted that there were 144 deaths in the oil and gas sector in 2014, the highest number of fatalities ever recorded.

“The fatality rate for oil and gas extraction was 15.6 per 100,000 workers, nearly 5 times the national average,” the report says. “The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention,” the group added.

NCOSH notes in its report, Preventable Deaths, that fatalities increased in the agriculture, mining and manufacturing sectors.

Both reports also found greater risks to older workers, which made up one third of the total number of fatalities. Speaking on a press call, Jessica Martinez, NCOSH’s acting executive director, said it was unclear why so many more older workers were being injured and called for more studies to assess the data and make recommendations.

Martinez also noted an increasing risk for temporary workers. She said that in 2014, 802 contracted or temporary workers died from workplace injuries, marking 16 percent of all fatalities. She said the figure was higher than in 2013, underscoring the growing number of temporary jobs in the economy and the fact that such workers are “frequently assigned to the most hazardous” jobs.

She reiterated recommendations that NCOSH and other organizations had submitted to OSHA in 2013 to better protect such temporary workers, which included calls for clarified health and safety responsibilities in dual employer settings, better targeting and tracking of data, stepped up enforcement and improved investigation procedures.

Martinez said OSHA supports the groups’ efforts to address temporary workers. But she said it is “tricky” determining who is accountable for protecting temporary workers. “Who is accountable?” she said, adding that both employers and temp agencies have responsibility for ensuring safe workplaces.

“We need more local focus to help enforce and protect temporary workers and track down temp agencies,” she said.

 

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