By Michael DiMuzio, Center for Effective Government
They build our homes, make the products we buy, and package our online orders for delivery. Working men and women built America, and they keep our economic engine running.
Today, we honor and remember all of the people who have lost their lives, have been injured at work, or have contracted long-term illnesses related to their jobs.
Workers’ Memorial Day (April 28) gives us the chance to reflect on the lives saved and injuries and illnesses averted because of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970 and the essential work of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
We have made remarkable strides in worker protections since 1970.
The number of on-the-job fatalities, injuries, and illnesses continue to trend downward. There has been a staggering 68 percent decrease in worker deaths between 1970 (when Congress passed the OSH Act) and 2013. The overall rate of workplace injuries and illnesses is down 70 percent, from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 (the first year of archived injury data) to 3.3 per 100 workers in 2013.
But more can be done to improve safety – especially in a few key industries.
While the OSH Act has and continues to save lives, there are still problems that must be addressed for the law to remain effective. This is especially true in certain industries.
For example, out of the 4,585 worker fatalities in 2013, 18 percent were in construction, 15 percent were in transportation and warehousing, and 10 percent were in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industries combined.
It is no coincidence that the most labor-intensive industries see the highest fatality rates, as those jobs tend to be especially dangerous. Without more frequent and extensive inspections, they will continue to lead all other industries in worker deaths.
Budget cuts and staffing shortfalls are preventing OSHA from making further progress.
OSHA faces significant challenges in addressing these issues. Federal OSHA and its state counterparts do not have the resources required to regularly inspect all worksites. Currently, the agency has 2,200 federal and state inspectors, but it is responsible for protecting 130 million Americans at more than 8 million workplaces. That is one inspector for every 59,000 workers. On the state level, the lack of resources can be even more troubling. For example, according to a new report by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, federal OSHA had just 98 inspectors in 2014 to cover Texas’ 10 million workers.
It would take federal OSHA staff 139 years to inspect every workplace its jurisdiction, and in some states, the problem is even worse. In 26 states, it would take 100 to 149 years to inspect every facility, and there are nine states where it would take 150 years or more to inspect every job site properly. Our workers don’t have 150 years to wait for safer working conditions.
Because of these limitations, OSHA relies on workers to speak up and identify the most dangerous establishments. This is only effective if employees who raise health and safety concerns are protected against retaliation by their employers. In 2012, each OSHA investigator was handling about 26 cases, and each took up to 286 days to close. With charges of retaliation increasing and OSHA no longer able to complete its investigations within the statutory deadline of 90 days, workers cannot raise legitimate concerns without fear of being demoted or fired. The Obama administration has requested a 30 percent increase in funding for OSHA whistleblower protections in its latest budget proposal, a good first step in addressing this problem and holding employers accountable for keeping workers safe.
If Congress makes safety a priority, we can save more lives.
An interactive map created by the Protecting Workers Alliance shows a selection of the fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2014. This loss of life could have been prevented had OSHA been given the resources it needs to safeguard our workers. Congress has a duty to stand up and protect our workforce. Increasing funding for OSHA’s inspection and enforcement work and for upgrading our country’s workplace safety standards is an important step in that process.
It’s time to start a new chapter in the fight for stronger protections and safer workplaces. After all, one of the best ways to honor fallen workers is to protect the lives and health of those who are still on the job.