INJURY, DEATH AND THE AMERICAN WORKER
By Dick Meister
More than 6200 Americans are killed on the job every year. More than
three million are injured, at least half of them seriously. Another 67,000
die from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other diseases caused by
exposure to toxic substances.
That's an average of at least 17 workers killed each and every day of
each and every year, another 183 dying from job-related illness and 9000
The financial toll is also high -- as much as $65 billion a year in
health care costs and $106 billion in such other costs as lost wages and
But despite the heavy loss of life, despite the human suffering, despite
the high dollar costs, the repeated demands of organized labor and its
allies for government action have been largely ignored.
What they've long demanded is strengthening of the Occupational Safety
and Health Act and the federal agency, OSHA, that enforces it. For 30 years,
OSHA has been the only real tool for protecting U.S. workers from
occupational hazards, yet it has been woefully underfunded and woefully lax
in enforcing the law.
OSHA has just 2000 inspectors covering the country's six million
worksites, and even when they have cited employers for violations, the fines
generally have been small and often have gone uncollected. The terrible
consequences of the government neglect were made most horrendously clear
when fire swept through a chicken-processing plant in Hamlet, N.C., in 1991.
There were no windows in the one-story building, no sprinkler or fire alarm
system, and doors were chained shut from the outside.
"They were screaming, 'Let me out!' They were beating on the
door," according to a news account. "Blackened footprints could be
seen later on a door where workers kicked their way out. A padlock was found
on a door marked, 'Fire Door -- Do Not Block'."
Twenty-five men and women died, 55 were injured. Not once in its entire
11 years of operation had the plant been inspected. What would have been
found, congressional investigators later reported, would have been "a
complete lack of even the most rudimentary fire safety standards."
Congress, however, has not responded with needed reforms of the job safety
law. It has done nothing in the nine years since the carnage in North
Carolina, nothing to lessen the hazards faced daily by U.S. workers, nothing
to lessen the chances that they also could fall victim to terrible accidents
that could easily be avoided.
Some 40 million workers are not even covered by the law. That includes
eight million local and state government employees who have 21 percent more
on-the-job injuries and work-related illnesses than workers in private
industry. Among the others not covered are farm workers, whose occupation is
the country's most dangerous, one in which 1500 workers a year are killed,
one-fifth of them children.
Extending coverage to the excluded workers is only one of many reforms
sought by the AFL-CIO and others. Bills to implement them have been before
Congress for eight years. The legislation also would require creation of
programs at all worksites to train workers in health and safety matters.
Joint labor-management committees would run the programs, investigate
accidents, shut down hazardous operations, conduct inspections and otherwise
oversee day-to-day safety.
Workers, furthermore, would have the absolute right to turn down
unusually dangerous work and to report unsafe conditions without fear of
employer retaliation. OSHA would have a much larger budget and the authority
to move faster against violators, substantially increase fines and
penalties, tighten regulations governing worker exposure to toxins and
create health and safety standards and regulations for the many fields of
risk now ignored by the government.
The most important of the new regulations would apply to the millions of
computer operators, assembly line workers, supermarket clerks and others who
suffer the serious neck and back problems, chronically sore arms and wrists
and other "repetitive motion injuries" that now account for more
than 60 percent of all on-the-job injuries, some of them permanently
Particular attention also would go to construction workers, who incur
one-fourth of all on-the-job fatalities, and health care workers, who are
endangered by chemicals that cause reproductive damage. President Clinton
came into office pledging to seek such reforms, but he backed off after
Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. GOP leaders quickly
introduced a set of counter-measures that would all but repeal the
Occupational Safety and Health Act by shifting its emphasis from enforcement
to voluntary compliance.
OSHA, for example, could issue warnings rather than citations and dismiss
complaints by merely talking with employers or the employers' own safety
officers rather than conducting on-site inspections. Other bills would make
certain that workers would have virtually no say about health safety. It
would be much harder -- if not impossible -- to promulgate new safety
standards for workers currently covered by the law or to extend the law to
those who are not covered.
It's difficult to predict who might win the currently stalemated
congressional battle between the Democratic sponsors of the labor-backed
bills to strengthen OSHA and the Republican sponsors of the bills to cripple
But is is certain that today, and tomorrow, and on every other day until
those demanding a strong and truly effective job safety law prevail,
thousands of American workers will needlessly suffer injury and death.
___________________________________________________________ Dick Meister, a
freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four
decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator. c
2000 Dick Meister