Too often, common sense safety measures are ignored at the expense of workers’ lives. Let’s change this, and stand up for Oregon’s workers.
Workplace safety — or a lack of it — is a serious issue, and it’s taking a toll on the American workforce. In 2013, nearly 5,000 U.S. workers were killed on the job, while an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. That’s 150 workers lost each day, often due to completely preventable circumstances. And while some jobs will always be dangerous – firefighting, policing, and logging come to mind – you might be surprised just how dangerous it is for the workers making some of your favorite things.
While workplace fatalities have been on the decline for years, they’re on the rise for the big Midwestern farm states. And it’s not just a state problem: Agricultural workers have a fatality rate nearly 700% higher than the national average. More than one person has died every day in farming accidents since 2003.
What’s especially shocking is how many of these deaths have nothing to do with what we consider the most dangerous aspects of farming, like working with power equipment. The EPA estimates that as many as 20,000 farm workers are poisoned by occupational exposure to pesticides every year – and while extensive research has yet to be conducted on the effect of those pesticides, they’ve been linked to illness and certain forms of cancer. There are simple safety measures that can be taken to prevent exposure to these chemicals, but that’s the problem: Too often, common sense safety measures are ignored.
Too often, common sense safety measures are ignored.
Take, for example, the 2013 Texas fertilizer plant blast that left 15 people dead and 226 wounded. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board found that the blast “should never have happened” and was almost completely preventable. Investigators found that Texas had no fire code and, in fact, small counties are actually prohibited from having codes in place. What’s more, the county had no emergency response plan in place. Without even requiring any action on the company’s part, these workers could have been protected.
The most striking example of disregarded safety precautions? The mining industry. An explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in 2010 brought the industry’s blatant neglect of safety standards to the national forefront after 29 miners were killed in the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in 40 years. The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) report on the incident concluded that the accident had been “entirely preventable” and was the result of “multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts… to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators.” The incident prompted MSHA to launch a new inspection program; in the five years since its inception, the program issued “13,951 citations, 1,244 orders and 56 safeguards, many of them for serious or life-threatening conditions.”
Within the mining industry, oil and gas workers make up 72% of fatalities, but it can be incredibly difficult to find out the causes of those deaths. While traumatic injuries, like being struck by equipment, make up the majority, a growing number of fatalities may be linked to the inhalation of toxic chemical fumes, which are more difficult to quantify. Only four deaths between FY 2013 and FY 2014 were classified as inhalation deaths, but there were likely more that were instead attributed to cardiac arrhythmia or respiratory failure, meaning there was no further investigation into the cause.
The ease of escaping liability in inhalation deaths may be why so many fatalities have gone unpunished. The death of Ryan Provancher, who died at 25 due to inhalation of toxic fumes, resulted in three serious citations to the company, but the fine came to a mere $8,400. Still, that’s more than in the case of David Simpson, whose death at 54 due to toxic fume inhalation resulted in no fine, or Zachary Buckles, 20, who again died from toxic fume inhalation, whose employer reached an informal settlement of only $1,960.
The good news is that employers are starting to face harsher penalties for worker deaths. The former CEO of Massey, the company responsible for the UBB explosion, is finally facing trial this month for intentional non-compliance with safety standards. That makes him the first CEO of a major U.S. corporation to be criminally charged for “conspiring to violate workplace-safety rules following a deadly industrial accident.”
But this by no means should that suggest our work is done. Big business is launching an all-out assault on workers’ compensation, one of the major protections for injured workers and their families. A new set of laws, so far only effective in Texas and Oklahoma, allow companies to opt out of worker compensation and replace it with their own rules. And it’s exactly what you’d expect when you let the people workers’ compensation is supposed to protect workers from draft the rules of workers’ compensation. Some examples of the conditions:
- No coverage for cumulative trauma, like carpal tunnel.
- No coverage for any sickness or disease “regardless of how contracted” (allowing employers to opt-out of covering cancer, heat stroke, or chemical exposure).
- No coverage for injuries caused by safety violations (which becomes a serious issue in cases like UBB, where management instructing workers to violate safety standards was the norm).
- Allowing corporate presence in doctors’ appointments.
- Allowing workers to be fired in retaliation for claims.
And while these opt-out policies are only in two states right now, the mastermind behind the laws has plans to spread them to a dozen states in the next decade. That means that one of the the biggest checks against big corporate exploitations against workers might become a thing of the past.
It’s probably no surprise that these laws have started off in states with anti-worker laws in place. In states with strong unions, workers are able to come together and advocate for better working conditions, and we see fewer workplace fatalities, higher wages, and fairer policies. The best way to stand up for workers here in Oregon is to protect their unions — because as soon as workers lose their voice, everyone stands to lose a lot.