AFL-CIO Report Examines Sorry State of Workplace Safety

The labor union AFL-CIO recently released its 29th annual “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” report. Among other things, the study examines state and national trends in workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses; safety inspections; penalties and other sanctions issued against workplaces under the Occupational Health and Safety Act; and staffing issues. It also includes information about the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on workplaces.

Using the most recently available data, the report found that in 2018, nearly 3.5 million workers in all industries “had work-related injuries and illnesses” reported by their employers, according to the AFL-CIO. About 2.8 million of these were in the private sector, with the remaining in public sector workplaces (such as state and local governments). The AFL-CIO emphasizes that issues with injury reporting and rampant underreporting mean this is an under-estimate of the problem, and that “the true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater—or 7.0 million to 10.5 million injuries and illnesses a year.” On a more granular level, the report states that 5,250 people died from workplace incidents in 2018, while about 95,000 died from workplace-related illnesses; an average of 275 workers die every day from dangerous workplace conditions, it estimates, and the workplace fatality rate in 2018 (3.5 workers per every 100,000) was the same as it was in 2017, reflecting little positive movement in workplace safety policy or enforcement. The cumulative cost of workplace illnesses and injuries is estimated to be between $250 billion and $330 billion annually.

As the AFL-CIO notes, worker safety issues improved over the course of the Obama Administration, which took such steps as increasing funding for job safety and enforcement of violations, enhancing workers’ rights, and enacting regulations to protect workers from hazards like silica and coal dust. Worker safety deteriorated under the Trump Administration, according to the AFL-CIO, which worked “aggressively” to roll back Obama-era regulations. When combined with weak Congressional oversight at the beginning of the administration, the result of this agenda is that “important safety and health protections have been repealed or weakened” over the course of the Trump Administration.

Among other things, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cut back on inspections of “significant cases and complex health hazards,” and has largely neglected oversight of workplaces during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the AFL-CIO, OSHA “has the lowest number of job safety inspectors since the early 1970s, when the agency opened,” while the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been “consolidating coal and metal/nonmetal inspectors into one.”

For more information about the US’s workplace safety record, read the AFL-CIO’s report here.

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