I can’t help but contrast last week’s release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of workplace fatality data,with the reports issued this week by community groups to commemorate International Workers’ Memorial Day (WMD). BLS gave us the sterile number: 4,585. That’s the government’s official, final tally of the number of work-related fatal injuries that occurred in the US in 2013.
But groups in Tennessee, Massachusetts, and elsewhere have already assembled workplace fatality data for 2014. Better than that, they’ve affixed names and stories to the numbers. The information comes in the form of WMD reports and an open-access database of work-related fatalities occurring in the US during 2014, with names, ages, and other details about the victims whenever possible. First to the reports:
I worked, for example, with colleagues and we identified by name 62 workers from the Houston, TX area who died in 2014 from fatal work-related injuries. Our 23-page report lists their names, ages, circumstances of their deaths, and safety violations and penalties if applicable. For about half of the victims, we provide a photo of the deceased worker. In a section of the report we call “Worker Not Identified,” we note that many workplace fatality incidents are not reported in the press. Some government agencies keep secret the names of the victims. As the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NatCOSH) explains in their WMD report:
"As activists around the country seek information about workers killed in their state, region or locality, we find that important details are available in some cases but not others, with no logical explanation for the inconsistencies. Why should it be so hard for the public to know who was killed on the job and the basic facts of what happened?"
NatCOSH notes the inconsistency among government agencies. BLS’s data, they write, is
“...summary data only, with specific information about the names of workers and employers typically withheld as confidential. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration, by contrast, has a long-standing policy of posting workplace fatalities on their website within days of being notified about a fatality. The report typically includes the name of the worker who died, his or her employer and a short description of the incident. The US Fire Administration…also publishes information about on-duty career and volunteer firefighter fatalities. These public postings help us remember those who have died, and also provide crucial information that can help protect others who are exposed to ongoing occupational hazards.”
NatCOSH punctuates this point on the cover of its report. It displays photos of six victims from 2014 of fatal work-related injuries, with a seventh image---an outline of a person---with a giant question mark on the body. A terrific graphic that says to me "who was the victim?"
But topping NatCOSH's report cover is the one that features the powerful photo below.
It is the photo that appears on the cover of the Knoxville Area’s WMD Committee’s report. The coalition of labor and faith groups prepared “Dying for a Job.” The 59-page document list the names, ages and circumstances of 172 Tennessee workers who died from work-related causes in 2013 and 2014. The authors of this report, as well as of the others, are careful to say “partial list.” They know their lists are incomplete. These groups use whatever sources and as many sources—-from news stories, firefighter association sources, to OSHA news releases and word of mouth—to track down and identify the cases.
The Tennessee report captures the spirit and sentiment of the day set aside to remember workers killed on-the-job:
“Please take the time to pause and review this roll. Not only does it speak to the magnitude of losses suffered, it also reminds us of the tasks done by workers every day, and of the dignity and value of human labor.”
MassCOSH and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO remember by name 49 workers who lost their lives in the state in 2014. In their 27-page report “Dying for Work in Massachusetts,” the authors provide details about each victim, and also offer longer profiles on and photos of some of the deceased. These profiles tell a story about some of Massachusetts’ workplace fatalities victims, including firefighters Edward Walsh, Jr., 43, and Michael Kennedy, 33, who were killed in March 2014 while fighting a 9-alarm fire in the Back Bay area of Boston. The authors highlight particular health and safety challenges, such as hazards faced by municipal workers and an aging workforce.
Worker justice and safety advocates in south Florida issued a WMD report, noting the hefty death toll in the Sunshine State. Between June and September 2014, there were 30 fatal work-related injuries in just the southern region of Florida.
Besides honoring workplace fatality victims by name, with photos and stories, these WMD reports have other similarities:
- They note the untold number of deaths from occupational diseases. An estimated 53,000 individuals in the US die each year from work-related illnesses. There is no government agency or coordinated system to track those deaths. As a result, most of the victims remain nameless.
- They point to the collapse of the workers’ compensation system as a safety net for injured workers and their families. Several of the reports refer to the excellent reporting earlier this year in “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp,” by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes.
- They offer recommendations to prevent work-related fatalities. In the Tennessee report, for example, the authors include the text of legislation which has been introduced in their state capitol to strengthen workplace safety. One is a bill which would require special safety requirements for government construction projects, and another would increase penalties assessed to employers for serious safety violations. The NatCOSH report emphasizes the fundamental safety regulations that, if diligently followed by employers, would prevent many fatalities.
Worker Memorial Day wouldn’t be complete with the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job (DOTJ) report. This year’s is the organization’s 24th edition. It is the best annual compendium of US worker health and safety statistics. The report includes 150 pages of data tables (e.g., OSHA’s annual budget for each year dating back to 1979; annual work-related injury, illness and fatality for the most recent 10 year period,) as well as a profile of key data from every State (e.g., number of inspections conducted, average penalties assessed.) The AFL’s DOTJ report is my go-to resource for worker safety and health data. In this year’s edition, I noticed a few new data tables (e.g., a breakdown by industry of where federal and State OSHA conducted inspections in the most recent year.) And, following the theme of the other WMD reports mentioned above, the AFL-CIO’s DOTJ report profiles about 10 specific fatality incidents and provides the victims’ names and ages.
Now onto the open-access database of work-related fatalities:
This past summer, The Pump Handle’s Kim Krisberg wrote about Bethany Boggess’ on-line global mapping project to assemble and post information on incidents of occupational deaths, illnesses and disasters. Six months later, Boggess and a small group of other volunteers developed the largest open-access data set of workplace fatality cases that occurred in the US in 2014. It was released yesterday.
Boggess, who has a masters of public health and is with the National Center for Farmworker Health, told me:
“Focusing on statistics to talk about fatalities isn’t enough. The stories, the names, and faces of deceased workers show us the human consequences of failing to address dangerous working conditions.”
The US Worker Fatality Database identifies to-date more than 1,700 workplace fatalities for 2014. This is about one-third of the total cases that will be reported by BLS next year. The database includes, where available, the name of the deceased, the employer, and the circumstances of the death, with links to news accounts and obituaries. The project also includesinteractive maps —all of it available to the public to reproduce. The individuals and groups who developed the system, will manage and continue to add to it. They simply ask users to credit: “US Workers Fatality Database.”
Do names and face matter? Consider this: A vigil was held last night in Houston to remember the victims from 2014 of workplace fatalities. The vigil featured the solemn reading of the names of the 62 individuals we were able to identify. The families of Juan Guerrero, 18, and Walter Warner, 53, wore t-shirts printed with a photo of their deceased loved ones. The images on their t-shirts were the same ones that appears in our Houston-area WMD report.
It's a sham that it is so difficult to find out information about workers who die at work. If they were killed outside of work, details about it would be spread in the news, their families interviewed, their stories heard and some inquiry into accountability at least mentioned.
In my many interactions with family members whose loved ones died because of hazards at work, never has one said to me "don't use his name," or "keep her name secret."