Death at Work in America

Pandemic, Mostly Unacknowledged

By Joann Wypijewski

The Man giveth, and The Man taketh away. Forty years ago, when Americans—lots of Americans—made things, more of them died in a year on the job than died in a year fighting in Vietnam. This never registered much in the national consciousness. Death in war seems so preventable, so grotesque. Death on the job is “an accident.” The one gets headlines; the other, a shrug.

Forty years on, everything is diminished, but the basic pattern holds. Fewer Americans make things, and fewer fight in the wars. Fewer die on the battlefield or on the factory floor, on construction sites, in the fishing boats and slaughterhouses and logging camps. But the death of U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan still stirs angry or lamenting souls, and the bodycount is still far lower than death on the job.

Troll the web and soon enough up pop thumbnail photos of the fallen troops. The left-wing listserve “GI Special” carries their pictures and short biographies in every missive. Like the 2,975 dead from September 11, the 4,924 American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 are somehow known, memorialized, mourned even by those who despise their industry. Not so the 40,019 workers who died on the job between 2001 and 2007, the latest year for which there are figures (and not counting the 9/11 dead).

Most of these workers did not shoot at anyone, terrorize or torture anyone. They did not drop bombs on weddings or call in artillery strikes on city blocks. No “Dead Workers Families Speak Out” exists to be accorded respectful hearing at leftish gatherings. For the dead, and the many more who are injured and sickened by their work, or who die of occupation-related illnesses like Black lung, there is one day of remembrance, April 28, Workers Memorial Day, which almost no one outside organized labor notices.

These are the more prosaic casualties of capital, and every year the AFL-CIO issues a report documenting them. This year’s “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” is the eighteenth such report. The good news: after rising every year since 2002, the total number of deaths decreased in 2007. And since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, 389,000 fewer workers have died on the job. The report’s table of statistics since 1970 posts the decline: 13,800 dead in 1970, for a fatality rate of 18 per 100,000; 5,657 dead in 2007, for a rate of 3.8 per 100,000.

This is how we mark progress: death on the job, just not so much of it. An average 15 corpses and 10,950 maimed or hurting workers at day’s end; could be worse. It probably is worse, actually. Because of under-reporting, the number of injured workers every year is likely closer to 12 million than the official four million. The 50,000 to 60,000 who die from occupational diseases each year cannot be a hard estimate; cancer, for instance, doesn’t usually come with a pedigree. Even the precision of deaths on the job has to be qualified; the number does not account for the fates of 8.8 million public sector workers not covered by OSHA. It does not include deaths in the underground economy. Not the street dealers killed by rivals or police, and not the hookers and massage artists murdered in the line of duty by the likes of the Craigslist killer.

The relatively low number of deaths of Black workers, 609 in 2007, conceals the claw of racism and joblessness. The number is “low” (3,867 white workers died) because Blacks have historically been underrepresented in the most dangerous (but often highly paid) jobs: fishers, loggers, aircraft pilots/flight engineers, farmers and ranchers, structural iron and steel workers, other building trades. (Though not in one of the most dangerous jobs of all, working as a counter clerk in a 7/11.) But the number is up more than seven percent, to its highest mark since 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, because fatalities in the protective services are up: dead cops, up 30 per cent; dead security guards, up 11 per cent; dead firefighters, up 17 percent.

In a perverse way, death on the job for whites and Latinos at least signals robust participation in the labor force. And the death rates for both fell in 2007. But Black workers not only had a higher fatality rate; they had, and have, a higher rate of unemployment. In 2007 the proportion of Black families with one unemployed member was officially 10.8 per cent, compared with 5.6 per cent for whites. One would think joblessness would have at least one upside, but Blacks are jobless and dying. The last time Black death rates were so high, at the height of the Clinton years of supposed general prosperity, one of the employment headlines was that an overwhelming majority of Black male high school dropouts were not working, while an overwhelming majority of white dropouts were. For the most part those white dropouts held onto their jobs as the economy went into recession, while Black unemployment regardless of education rose even higher.

Now the states with the highest death rates are white, sparse and rural: West Virginia, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming. But the states with the worst safety inspection rates are in the South. The AFL-CIO report’s subtitle refers to neglect of safety standards and neglect by government overseers, and it notes that OSHA is so understaffed and overwhelmed that it would take 137 years for it to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just once if nothing changed. A lot longer in some states: 303 years in Arkansas; 259 years in Florida; 184 years in Georgia; 173 years in Louisiana.

The report, available from, reads like a staid government report. It reviews the starvation of the OSHA budget in the Bush years, details the state of ergonomic standards (nonexistent), mine safety (better, then awful, now bad), chemical emission regulations (virtually stopped after the first energetic years following OSHA’s passage), pandemic flu preparedness (off the radar). It details costs of programs, medical treatment and lost work, reasons for under-reporting, budget shortfalls, Congressional action that was thwarted under Bush or is pending, employer penalties or lack thereof. It emphasizes the spike in deaths of foreign-born workers since 1992 (though has nothing to say beyond mentioning the fact of the Black numbers). And it offers a wealth of numbers, tables and facts. Industries with highest rates of nonfatal injuries and illnesses? Skiing facilities, sports teams and clubs, sugar beet manufacturing, steel foundries, iron foundries.

After all this, it concludes as liberal institutions and commentators almost always do whenever considering a matter that exposes fundamental power conflicts between labor and capital. It reduces exploitation and the keys to life or death to a resource question: “It is clear that OSHA lacks sufficient resources to protect workers adequately.”

It tells no gripping stories of conditions on the job. It makes no distinction between deaths and injuries at union and non-union enterprises. (This is probably because unionization is likely to lead to higher rates of reporting, hence higher indices of injury; although anyone who follows the news and has an eye open is aware that the most notorious recent mine disasters, crane topplings, sugar refinery explosions, the closest calls in construction in almost any city, have been non-union.) Apart from the meekest mention of the need for workers to “be given a real voice in the workplace”—given?—it betrays not the slightest suggestion that it has a moral and material interest in organizing workers. It spends no time outlining the theory or record of worker safety committees on the job, no time articulating the relationship between apprenticeship training, safety and quality on union construction sites. At a time when labor’s chief legislative aim is labor law reform and the clarion to organize has been sounded high and low, the AFL-CIO makes no argument for its own existence. It’s as if the federation wants to be the good child in the class, impressing teacher Obama with its maturity and keening for a reward.

Next to the report’s anodyne statistical tables, a report last year by Ted Kennedy’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called “Discounting Death,” seems positively radical. There in plain language is described the bureaucratic card house that no amount of full funding could set on a foundation of fairness: the layers of “review” that favor employers and typically reduce penalties to a pittance; the incentives for employers to contest citations and avoid most or all penalties; the ease with which “willful” violations of health and safety can be downgraded; the indifference of regulators to collect the paltry sums they do manage to extract administratively, the development of enforcement programs without the slightest intention of going after repeat offenders.

Like the AFL-CIO’s report, the Senate document decries OSHA’s fundamental calculus: a worker’s life is cheap, and an employer always gets the benefit of the doubt. But it vividly describes the consequences of corporate flouting of safety procedures; it includes workers’ and families’ voices; and it draws bright contrasts to makes its points. So the maximum criminal penalty for willfully violating a safety standard or regulation and causing a worker to die is six months in prison, while the maximum sentence for mail fraud is 30 years, the maximum sentence for improperly hunting migratory birds is two years, the maximum sentence for dealing in counterfeit money is 20 years, the mandatory sentence for piracy is life. The maximum civil penalty for a willful safety violation that results in death is $70,000, while violating the South Pacific Tuna Act can bring a fine of $325,000, violating the Clean Air Act can cost one $270,000, and violating the Fluid Milk Promotion Act can cost $135,000.

Killing a worker through willfully lax safety standards is a misdemeanor. Typically the fine starts low and goes lower. In 2007, an inspector’s median initial penalty in worker fatality cases was $5,900 and was negotiated down to a median final penalty of $3,675. Between 2004 and 2007 OSHA had not bothered to collect almost half of the penalties it had imposed in fatality cases, equaling more than $27 million.

Organized labor spent over $150 million on the election of 2008. Even with its junior partner pretensions, in addition to proposing stiffer penalties, felony charges and a mechanism for collecting fines, it might have proposed a major revamp of OSHA’s structure, the training and funding of an army of inspectors from among the unemployed in each industrial sector, the elimination of OSHA’s multiple layers of review and its discounting process, the creation of worker safety committees in every workplace to interact with workers, managers and regulators, and the passage of comprehensive labor law reform to ensure the workers’ right to organize. And it would muster all the passion it could to make a public case out of the scandal of the government’s complicity in the profits of death.

About seventy years ago, in the midst of an earlier depression, my grandfather died from working on the railroad. He was a machinist there, and my father remembers him coming home from the rail yards black with soot, stripping off his work clothes and cleaning up in the basement. They said he had emphysema, but about twenty years ago my father started thinking maybe it was closer to Black lung. Whatever, he grew weaker, and his breathing more strained. My father would walk to the rail yards at the end of his dad’s shift and accompany him home, walking slowly, stopping frequently, letting the old man lean on him. My grandfather was in his 40s, my father a teenager. He died when my father was 16 or 17. Growing up, I never thought much about my family’s acquaintance with death. It was never presented as strange that my grandfather died so young or so badly, or that my father’s sister died of diphtheria at 3, or that another child didn’t live past his first day. Children died. Work killed. Everyone else moved on.

It ought to be harder to move on now. Each season’s new untimely deaths, its legions of discarded injured, ought to make us angry.

JoAnn Wypijewski writes for CounterPunch, The Nation and other publications.

—Counterpunch, April 29, 2009