Workers Memorial Day 2012OSHA remains underfunded, understaffed and unarmed with penalties high enough to deter violations, according to the AFL-CIO’s annual report on occupational fatalities in the U.S., which provides background analysis in addition to the data.

The report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” shows that 4,694 workers were killed on the job in 2011 – an average of 13 a day. Another estimated 50,000 die every year from occupational diseases – an average of 137 a day, which brings the total worker fatalities to 150 a day. 

North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska and Arkansas had the highest workplace fatality rates, while New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Washington had the lowest. Latino workers, especially those born outside of the United States, continue to face rates of workplace fatalities fourteen percent higher than other workers, the same as last year.

In 2011, 3.8 million workers across all industries experienced work-related illnesses and injuries.

“The true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater, but lack of reporting in this area results in lower official figures,” noted the report.

Concerted efforts and additional resources

“The job fatality rate had been declining steadily for many years, but in the past three years the rate has essentially been unchanged, at 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Similarly, for the past two years, there has been no change in the reported workplace injury and illness rate (3.5 per 100 workers). If we are to make progress in reducing job injuries and deaths, we will need more concerted efforts and additional resources.”

The report also examines the role of OSHA and concludes that a lack of resources has left the agency unable to make significant inroads in worker safety.

Once every 131 years

From “Death on the Job:”

“Because of the underfunding, federal OSHA inspectors can only inspect workplaces once every 131 years on average, and state OSHA inspectors would take 76 years to inspect all workplaces.

OSHA penalties are too low to be taken seriously, let alone provide deterrence. The average penalty is only $2,156 for a serious federal health and safety violation, and only $974 for a state violation. Even in cases involving worker fatalities, the median total penalty was a paltry $5,175 for federal OSHA and $4,200 for the OSHA state plans. By contrast, property damage valued between $300 and $10,000 in the state of Illinois is considered a Class 4 felony and can carry a prison sentence of 1 to 3 years and a fine of up to $25,000.”

Few criminal cases

Criminal penalties under OSHA are also weak. Only 84 cases related to worker deaths have been prosecuted since 1970. In contrast, there were 320 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 231 defendants charged in 2012 alone.

The report cites “an ongoing assault on regulations by business groups and Republicans in Congress” as one factor behind the lack of movement on important new safety and health rules and cites an example cited by many worker safety advocates: the long-delayed silica rule proposed by OSHA which has languished for more than two years in a White House Office of Management and Budget review.