Workers Memorial Day 2007: mourn for the dead, but fight for the living

April 27th, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

Workers’ Memorial Day – April 28 – is both a day of remembrance for workers who have died on the job and a grim reminder that we must all work to prevent further workplace deaths and injuries. April 28 has been dedicated as a day of remembrance since 1989. The significance of April 28th is to commemorate the 1971 date that OSHA was established as an agency to administer the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which became law in 1970. Workers Memorial Day has grown to become an international remembrance – safety advocates, workers, and trade unions in more than 100 counties now observe the event. The AFL-CIO Worker Memorial Day site offers more in the way of information, links, and toolkits, including a state-by-state directory of Workers’ Memorials that have been erected to commemorate workers who have been injured or killed on the job. For a more global perspective, Hazards magazine has a page dedicated to International Workers Memorial Day, which includes extensive links and resources.
Death on the Job – The Toll of Neglect
In conjunction with Workers Memorial Day, the AFL-CIO recently released its annual report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect. Among other things, the report offers a state-by-state snapshot summarizing fatalities, injuries and illnesses, penalties, and the number of OSHA inspectors. It also offers a state-by-state breakdown of fatalities by event or exposure.
The report relies heavily on BLS data for 2005. (We discussed BLS data last August in our post BLS Stats on Dying at Work: Spin Control in the Graveyard.) Here is an excerpt from the report’s summary of key data:

According to the BLS, there were 5,734 workplace deaths due to traumatic injuries in 2005, a decrease from the number of deaths in 2004, when 5,764 workplace deaths were reported. The rate of fatal injuries was 4.0 per 100,000 workers in 2005 compared to 4.1 per 100,000 workers in 2004, a 2 percent decrease. Wyoming led the country with the highest fatality rate (16.8 per 100,000), followed by Montana (10.3), Mississippi (8.9), Alaska (8.2), South Dakota (7.5) and South Carolina (6.7). The lowest state fatality rate (1.1 per 100,000) was reported in Rhode Island, followed by Vermont (2.0),
Maine (2.2), Hawaii (2.3), Massachusetts (2.3) and Michigan (2.3). Twenty-four states saw an increase in either the rate or number of fatalities between 2004 and 2005, with Mississippi, Montana, and South Dakota having the biggest increases in fatality rates.

The construction sector had the largest number of fatal work injuries (1,192) in 2005, followed by transportation and warehousing (885) and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (715). Industry sectors with the highest fatality rates were agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (32.5 per 100,000), mining (25.6 per 100,000) and transportation and warehousing (17.7 per 100,000).
Transportation incidents, in particular highway crashes, continue to be the leading cause of workplace deaths, responsible for 2,493 or 43 percent of all fatalities in 2005.

The report goes on to note that BLS data only tells part of the story because it only covers certain segments of workers. For example, It does not include self-employed workers, domestic workers, farms with fewer than 11 employees, employers regulated by other federal safety and health laws, or federal, state and local government agencies. A recent study points to the issue of underreporting:

While government statistics show that occupational injury and illness are declining, numerous studies have shown that government counts of occupational injury and illness are underestimated by as much as 69 percent. A recent study published in the April 2006 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that examined injury and illness reporting in Michigan has made similar findings. The study compared injuries and illnesses reported in five different data bases – the BLS Annual Survey, the OSHA Annual Survey, the Michigan Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, the Michigan Occupational Disease reports and the OSHA Integrated Management Information System. It found that during the years 1999, 2000 and 2001, the BLS Annual Survey, which is based upon employers’ OSHA logs, captured approximately 33 percent of injuries and 31 percent of illnesses reported in the various data bases in the state of Michigan.

One reason why even more progress in reducing work fatalities hasn’t occurred can be found in the dearth of OSHA inspectors. While the United Nations’ International Labour Organization recommends one inspector for every 10,000 workers as a benchmark, the OSHA reality is far different. The report includes a graphic visual depiction of the number of years it would take each state to inspect every workplace once.
We’ve had occasion to visit thousands of employer worksites over our 20+ years, and we have been heartened by the increased emphasis on safety that we’ve seen. Sometimes that dedication is a heartfelt commitment to workers and to excellence; other times, it is a calculated matter of good business economics – strangely enough, doing the right thing is often the cheapest option. One thing we’ve seen all too often: the safest workplaces are often those that have experienced a death-on-the-job – a truly terrible and traumatic way to join the ranks of the safety believers. Of course, we also recognize that the employers we see are a self-selecting group: those that choose to do better. We are mindful that there are negligent employers, both large and small, who accept injuries, illnesses, and even fatalities as a normal cost of doing business.
Related reading:
The Weekly Toll: Death at work
The sad, quiet death of Bud Morris – father, husband, motorcycle afficianado
The Lonely Death of Octavio Godinez
A terrible burden: the death of a coworker

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