Americans say they respect life and the rule of law, but not so much when it involves workers’ lives and safety hazards

After 35 years of service, Mr. Sherman Lynn Holmes, 55, retired from the Pine River School District. Before long though, he gave up the life of a retiree to work as a woodsman. It was his true calling and lifelong passion. He knew the woods and trees of northern Michigan like the back of his hand. He was well-known in the region as the go-to logger.

Mr. Holmes was working on February 1, 2011 for K & K Forest Products with two other men near Evert, Michigan. As he trimmed up a felled tree in a wooded area, his co-worker felled another large tree and it struck Mr. Holmes. He was fatally injured. Michigan-OSHA (MIOSHA) investigated the incident and cited the company for three serious violations. The State agency assessed a total monetary penalty $1,525. (The allowable maximum penalty is $7,000 for each serious violation.) His employer, K & K Forest Products paid the penalty and the case is closed.

So it goes with far too many investigations of workplace fatalities in the U.S. A measly civil fine is assessed, and business goes on as usual. The AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job” report helps us see how true that is.

In eight States, for example, the median proposed penalty in post-fatality inspection cases conducted in 2011 was less than $4,000. Of the 101 fatal work-injury incidents investigations conducted in these States (i.e., Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah) the initial proposed penalty ranged from $0 (in Delaware with one fatality) to $2,100 (in Idaho with two fatalities investigated) to $2,500 (in Oregon with 20 fatalities investigated) to $3,800 (in Maryland with 16 fatalities investigated.) The large tree that struck Mr. Holmes had a higher market value than the MIOSHA penalty for his work-related death.

For 21 years, staff of the AFL-CIO’s health and safety (H&S) department have assembled data from various sources to prepare an annual report on the state of workplace safety in the U.S. The roots of the report stemmed from efforts in the early 1990’s to enact comprehensive and progressive improvements to the federal law that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.) Those efforts failed, but the annual report carried on. The long-time director of the AFL-CIO’s H&S department, Peg Seminario, explained to me that the first report included the same type of state-by-state profiles contained in the more recent reports. The descriptive data, however, about the characteristics of the fatally-injured workers (e.g., age, nationality, and occupation) was not available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics until more recently. (See previous post.)

The first “Death on-the-Job” report which was released in 1992 was 67 pages long. The version issued last month is more than 180 pages, and includes more than 60 data tables. The information covers everything from federal OSHA’s appropriations, budget breakdown and full-time equivalents (FTEs) from 1975 to the present; to fatality rates by industry sectors dating back to 1970; to a synopsis of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) impact inspections conducted in 2011; to a list of all major OSHA health and safety standards issued since 1971.

The report does not shy away from presenting estimates of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses among U.S. workers, while acknowledging the limitations in the data. One table for example presents data on the industries with the highest rates of non-fatal injuries and illnesses. At the top of the list is nursing and residential care facilities, followed by fire protection, travel trailer and camper manufacturing, iron foundries, and hospitals. The incident rates range from 15.1 to 11.8 per 100 workers, which compares to an overall rate for private sector workers of just 3.5 per 100 workers. Another table in the “Death on the Job” report illustrates the severity of many serious work-related injuries, as measured in days away from work. The median number of days away from work for all lost-time injury cases in private industry was eight days, but an alarming 27.5 percent of lost-time cases caused the worker to lose 31 or more days away from work.

For a country heavy on pro-life rhetoric and claims about respecting the rule of law, this annual AFL-CIO report reveals how little our nation invests in ensuring working people are protected from workplace hazards, and in holding employers accountable when workers are injured, made ill, or worse because of hazards in their work environment. It notes that there are 8.1 million State and local employees (e.g., fire fighters, prison guards, psychiatric hospital nurses) who are not covered by OSHA; there is just one workplace safety inspector in the U.S. for every 59,000 workers; in nearly 30 States, it would take the current number of workplace safety compliance officers more than 100 years to inspect each worksite there; and the penalty amounts for violating OSHA standards have not been updated in 20 years.

Sherman Holmes’ daughters, Nicole and Danielle, thought there was a strong system in place in the U.S. to ensure workers in dangerous jobs are protected from hazards. The painful lesson they learned instead is that the MIOSHA penalty of $1,525 paid by their Dad’s employer, was less than the value of a good size log.

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