In New York, construction is the deadliest industry, with immigrant workers experiencing half of all occupational-related fatalities. Across the country in California in 2012, transportation incidents took the unenviable top spot as the leading cause of workplace fatalities. In Massachusetts in 2013, it’s estimated that upward of 500 workers died from occupational disease, at least 1,800 were diagnosed with cancers associated with workplace exposures and 50,000 workers experienced serious injury. In Wyoming, workplace deaths climbed to a five-year high in 2012, from 29 in 2011 to 35 in 2012. And in Tennessee, even though occupational fatality rates have averaged about 37 percent above the national rate for the past four years, it would take 69 years to investigate every covered worksite with current levels of enforcement staffing.
These and many more worrisome statistics were published in honor of Workers’ Memorial Week of Action, April 21–28, and Workers Memorial Day on April 28. In addition to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s (National COSH) report “Preventable Deaths 2014: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” which was released last week and highlights the thousands of U.S. workers who died at work in 2012, many state groups released their own statistics and stories as well.
• The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) released “Examining New York’s Workplace Deaths and the Construction Industry,” which reported that construction industry deaths and injuries could have been prevented if appropriate safety measures had been taken. NYCOSH found that throughout the state for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, at least one OSHA safety standard violation was cited in more than half — 66 percent — of inspections.
• Worksafe in California published “Dying at Work in California: The Hidden Stories Behind the Numbers.” In California, the largest number of occupational fatalities occurred in the transportation and material moving industry, followed by construction and extraction; installation, maintenance and repair; and farming, fishing and forestry. The report cited the Pump Handle’s Celeste Monforton in calling for putting names to the faces of those who’ve died on the job — “it’s an act of remembrance and solidarity, and it should be accompanied by a deep commitment to prevent the next loss from happening in the first place,” the report stated.
• The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health published “Dying for Work in Massachusetts: Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts’ Workplaces.” According to the report, falls of all types accounted for about a fifth of occupational fatalities, with the majority of such falls happening in the construction industry. Unfortunately, citing severe understaffing at OSHA, the report found that it would take more than 123 years for the agency to inspect each workplace within its jurisdiction in Massachusetts.
• The Wyoming Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health released “Preventable Deaths: Safety and Health in Wyoming.” The report began with the story of Anthony Simmons, who died after falling from a wall while working for a home-building company. In the story, Simmons’ father said: “He should have been required to wear a harness. He shouldn’t have been on that wall to begin with. Maybe this all could have been avoided.” Simmons’ family received only $10,000 in workers compensation benefits, which barely managed to cover burial expenses.
• The Knox Area Workers Memorial Day Committee published “Tennessee Workers — Dying for a Job: A Report on Worker Fatalities in Tennessee, 2012 & 2013.” The report highlighted state-specific data and published a list of workers who have died, along with their employers and causes of death as well as stories of many of the workers who lost their lives. Take, for example, Larry Chubbs and Michael Tallent:
Larry Chubbs worked at TAG Manufacturing in Chattanooga, a company that makes metal components of large construction equipment. On May 8, 2012, Larry was operating a blasting machine that cleans and descales large steel parts. He lost his life when an unsecured floor panel of a catwalk gave way and he fell into the machine’s moving parts. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that “when workers found Chubbs’ body in the machine, they found the panel from the catwalk with him.” He was 54 years old.
Michael Tallent had turned 27 only a month before the accident that took his life. Michael was working as a craneman’s helper for W&O Construction Co. at the Kuwahee Wastewater Treatment Plant, a Knoxville Utilities Board facility on Neyland Dr. in Knoxville. …As the crew began to move a load of sheet metal pilings, the crane’s main hoist line came into contact with overhead power lines, resulting in Michael being struck by a fatal bolt of electricity.
• The Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, Texas, published “Worker Memorial Day: Deaths at Houston Workplaces in 2013,” which stated that nearly every week in Texas’ largest city, a worker loses his or her life on the job. The report highlighted local worker initiatives, such as the center’s Domestic Worker Program, “La Colmena,” which is working to educate house cleaners and janitors about the health risks associated with cleaning products and suggest alternative options.
• The Occupational Health Clinical Centers of New York released “Low-Wage Work in Syracuse: Worker Health in the New Economy.” The report, which surveyed 275 low-wage workers, found that wage theft, unsafe work conditions and symptoms associated with workplace exposures were common experiences. The average pay among those surveyed was $9.65 (federal minimum wage is $7.25), about a fifth of workers reported not being paid overtime and 3 percent said they never get paid for overtime.
Just yesterday, AFL-CIO released its yearly report on workplace fatalities in “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.” According to the report, more than 4,600 workers lost their lives in the United States in 2012 due to workplace injuries and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. That means we lost nearly 150 workers every day from preventable workplace conditions. North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and West Virginia were home to the highest fatality rates; Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Washington reported the lowest rates. North Dakota’s rate was five times the national average and one of the highest worker fatality rates ever reported for any state.
The yearly memorial day and call to action also attracted a good bit of media attention as well. For a comprehensive list of news coverage, visit National COSH. And, of course, the Pump Handle’s Liz Borkowski wrote about Workers Memorial Day here, noting that “stories of workers who’ve been killed on the job, or who’ve developed fatal work-related illnesses, remind us of how awful the toll of unsafe workplaces can be, and how important it is to improve workplace health and safety.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.