NC occupational fatality report highlights enforcement weaknesses
State fines far below what’s allowed by OSH act
A report focusing on the nearly 150 worker deaths in North Carolina in 2011 demonstrates the effect of lax enforcement and weak fines, according to the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), which issued the document.
The report, “North Carolina Workers Dying for a Job: A 2013 Report on Worker Fatalities in North Carolina,” shares stories about workers killed on the job in North Carolina and points to reforms needed to prevent these types of incidents from reoccurring.
One case cited is that of 39-year-old Luis Martinez, who was working on a project installing a water line on the NC State University campus last November when the trench he was working in caved in. He was buried in several feet of dirt and died.
“Deaths from trench cave-ins are entirely preventable with the use of proper equipment, such as a trench box that supports the sides,” noted National COSH. “Yet, every year, workers to continue to die needlessly from this hazard.”
Martinez’s employer, J.F. Wilkerson Contracting Co. of Morrisville, had been cited previously for failure to provide its workers with adequate protections from trench cave-ins. Despite evidence that the company was not protecting its workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the NC Department of Labor levied only small fines on it.
“Luis Martinez paid the ultimate price as a result,” said Tom O’Connor, Executive Director of National COSH and lead author of the report. “Every workplace death is a tragedy, but in a case such as this when the employer has been cited previously for the very same violation, it borders on criminal negligence.”
According to data from OSHA, the average fine imposed by NC OSHA for a serious violation—one presenting the potential for serious bodily harm to an employee— is $1,309.95, far below the $7,000 allowable under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
“Worse, NC OSHA reduces its initial penalties by an average of 41 percent, often without any apparent justification. Employers cited by NC OSHA for repeat violations—exposing workers to seriously hazardous conditions even after they have been previously cited for doing so—are still issued only a slap on the wrist.
The report also notes that Latino workers die on the job in far greater numbers than their proportion of the state’s population. In the two-year period of 2011-2012, 28 percent of workers killed on the job for whom NC OSHA provided race/ethnicity data were Hispanic – 3.5 times their proportion in the population of the state.
“Year after year, Hispanic immigrant workers suffer high rates of death on the job in North Carolina,” said Yazmin Garcia Rico of Student Action with Farmworkers, a Durham-based worker advocacy organization. “We call on the NC Department of Labor to take action to ensure that these workers who come to this country for a better life don’t pay the ultimate price for a job.”
Community and labor leaders, workplace safety advocates and clergy gathered recently for a Wo0rkers’ Memorial Day program outside of the North Carolina Department of Labor to push for reforms to better protect workers on the job.
To see the full report, visit http://www.coshnetwork.org/nc-workers-dying-job-2013-report.
To read more about Luis Martinez’ story, visit: http://www.coshnetwork.org/fallen-workers-luis-javier-martinez-north-carolina.