OSHA overhaul

Commemorating Workers Memorial Day April 28, Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) called for congressional action to respond to the more than 60,000 workers who die each year of job-related injuries and illnesses.

Under the theme of “Good Jobs, Safe Jobs, Protect Workers Now,” Corzine introduced last year the Wrongful Death Accountability Act (S 1272), which would increase the penalty for federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations to a prison sentence of up to 10 years, from a meager six months, when an employer is cited for willful violations of the law resulting in death.

The economic direct cost of workplace injuries and illnesses is $1 billion a week. The annual price tag of the direct and indirect costs is between $183.2 billion and $274.8 billion. These are estimates from Liberty Mutual, the largest workers’ compensation insurance carrier, and are considered to be quite conservative by the AFL-CIO. The human toll is far greater.

In 2003, truck drivers had more fatal injuries than any other occupation and the figures were higher this year than last. Laborers had an increase of 8 percent in fatalities from the previous year. Trench fatalities, totally preventable, had a 62 percent increase. Texas had the largest number of trench deaths last year, eight.

The estimate is that at least 100 workers die of injuries each year due to “willful” violations by employers. This figure is a gross underestimation, since it is almost impossible to get OSHA to cite an employer for a willful violation that results in a criminal action.

A New York Times series of articles last December identified 2,197 worker deaths from 1982 to 2002 that resulted from willful employer safety violations. Yet, the best OSHA could do to punish the employers was to win 81 convictions with 16 jail sentences, with a total of less than 30 years in prison for the entire group.

The Times quoted Ron Hayes, an Alabama resident who founded a family support network after his son died in a workplace incident: “We have 100 to 150 workers killed every year in the state of Alabama – but it’s still a misdemeanor and no one is being prosecuted.” It is a felony in Alabama to hurt or kill a policeman’s horse, or to kill a pet dog or cat. “Something is wrong in this country when we treat animals better than we treat humans,” said Hayes.

The AFL-CIO report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” cited a study in the January 2004 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that said, “While government statistics show that occupational injury and illness are on the decline [overall], numerous studies have shown that government counts of occupation injury and illness are underestimated by as much as 69 percent.”

The Bush administration is proposing to reduce worker safety training programs by 65 percent, and to shift these funds to employer assistance programs. That is a prescription for mounting worker illnesses and deaths.

A new, pro-worker, pro-people Congress can change this accounting system around.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.