Working could be hazardous to your health.
In "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect," an annual report released last week, the AFL-CIO evaluated the health and safety of American workers. The report examines occupational fatalities, injuries and illnesses on state and federal levels, categorized by type, industry, race and gender. It also includes information about Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) funding, inspections, violations and penalties.
According to the report, 148 workers were killed on the job in North Carolina in 2011. With a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 people, North Carolina ranks slightly higher than the national average. Over the last several years, this rate has stayed steady, both in North Carolina and nationwide.
About one-third of worker deaths resulted from transportation incidents. Jobs in transportation, along with construction and agriculture, are some of the most dangerous industries, according to the report.
These industries tend to rely on Latino workers, who are disproportionately at risk for work-related death or injury. Latinos accounted for about 28 percent of workplace fatalities in 2011—2012, but they make up about 9 percent of the state’s population, notes a recent report on North Carolina worker fatality by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH).
Undocumented immigrants may be hesitant to report injuries or unsafe work conditions for fear of drawing unwanted attention. They may also have trouble understanding training materials or instructions due to language barriers, says Marybe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. AFL-CIO.
Another major cause of occupational death and injury in North Carolina is workplace violence, which can occur in health care settings, such as nursing homes, residential care facilities, psychiatric institutions and hospitals. Seventy percent of workplace violence victims were women, according to the report, and patients were responsible for more than half the injuries.
“You really think of the hospitals and nursing homes as places of healing … but it’s just the opposite,” says Bill Kojola, industrial hygienist for the AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department and one of the report’s co-authors. OSHA lacks standards for addressing workplace violence, according to Kojola. “It’s a real problem that we’re not really addressing in a policy way.”
The shortfalls of OSHA are discussed prominently in the report. The agency was created to uphold the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970, but the AFL-CIO contends the law is out of date and needs revision. It urges Congress to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act “to extend the law’s coverage to workers currently excluded, strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violations, enhance anti-discrimination protections and strengthen the rights of workers, unions and victims.”
OSHA is profoundly under-resourced and under-staffed, Kojola says. The report describes the number of workplace inspectors—and therefore the number of inspections—as “woefully inadequate.” In North Carolina, there was one inspector for every 38,771 workers in 2011. At that rate, it would take 59 years for the current staff to inspect each worksite once.
Not only does the number of inspectors fail to satisfy ILO benchmarks but the penalties for violating health and safety standards fail to motivate employers to make adjustments, according to various worker advocacy agencies. Average fine amounts range from $970 to $1,900, mere pocket change to major corporations. “Companies need more than a slap on the wrist when their carelessness causes someone’s death,” said McMillan in a speech on Workers Memorial day last month, April 28, 2013.
OSHA’s weak enforcement of penalties and tendency to reduce fines was chronicled in a recent New York Times exposé, which investigated a furniture cushion manufacturing company in Taylorsville, N.C. The article illustrates how OSHA’s leniency contributed, in part, to crippling many factory workers who were exposed to toxic glue fumes.
Local worker advocates say the N.C. Department of Labor needs to be more vigilant about protecting the state’s workers. “Our Commissioner of Labor, Cherie Berry, has made it clear that her allegiance is really with the business she advocates for,” says McMillan. Berry’s alliance with business was investigated by the Charlotte Observer, which showed that companies that had contributed to her campaign have received consistent and substantial reduction in fines for workplace violations.
The state Department of Labor also has a reputation for underreporting worker fatalities, partially because it doesn’t count deaths involving transportation incidents or workplace violence.
North Carolina figures
|Ratio of inspectors to workers||1 to 38,771|
|Workplace injuries and illnesses||78,000|
|Workplace fatalities in 2011|
|Assaults and violent acts||29|
|Contact with objects and equipment||24|
|Exposure to harmful substances or environments||12|
|Fires and explosions||4|
|Sources: State Department of Labor, AFL-CIO, N.C. AFL-CIO, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health|