OSHA: Report Reveals Staff Shortages Endangering Workers
In the United States, there are numerous worker protection laws at both the federal and state level. The enforcement of these laws is not always effective, which endangers workers. A California injury lawyer examines workplace safety in the state and nationwide.
Cal/OSHA estimates that there were around 500 workplace fatalities in California in 2011, not counting the 6,500 Californians who die each year from work-related diseases. Accidents and workplace violence are two causes of workplace fatalities. Work-related deaths cost at least $250 billion each year, including $67 billion in direct medical costs. Most of the workers who die in California, 92 percent, are men, and a greater number of Latinos, Asians and African Americans are killed on the job than Caucasians.
“There is a long history of worker activism in the United States,” explained California injury lawyer James Ballidis, “resulting in numerous laws addressing an array of issues, from the right to bargain collectively to the security of scaffolding at construction sites.”
The country’s worker protection movement was triggered in 1911 when 146 workers were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a garment factory fire. The death toll was so high because the doors were locked in the factory to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. This fire led to the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, a labor organization that played an instrumental role in fighting for sweatshop workers’ rights.
Throughout the next several decades, the organized labor movement grew and workers made advances. The most significant piece of worker protection legislation was passed in 1970: the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set and enforce safety standards in order to ensure that workplaces were reasonably safe.
The provisions of OSHA should protect workers by ensuring that employers do not allow dangerous conditions, hazardous chemicals or unsafe workspaces to adversely impact their employees’ health. The OSHA regulations, as well as other state and federal laws, are supposed to prevent disasters in the United States and are viewed as extremely important to saving lives, especially in light of recent disasters in countries less protective of workers, such as Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 workers were killed when a factory collapsed.
“Unfortunately, the country’s workplace safety laws are failing to provide sufficient protection to workers,” explained California injury lawyer James Ballidis.
Just days after the Bangladesh factory collapse halfway around the world, a major explosion occurred in a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killing 14 people, injuring more than 200 local residents, and causing massive property damage. The explosion occurred in a fertilizer plant that had not been inspected since 1985, despite the fact that such plants are inherently dangerous worksites. The scope of the tragedy was great, but could have been even worse if the explosion had occurred during the day when workers were present.
AFL-CIO Death on the Job Report
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) recently released a 2013 Death on the Job report that has been aptly titled The Toll of Neglect. The report showed that there are a total of 837 federal OSHA inspectors responsible for overseeing more than 8 million workplaces. With such a low staff level, an OSHA inspector could visit each workplace an average of once every 131 years.
“The penalties for safety violations are unlikely to prevent employers from endangering workers,” explained California injury lawyer James Ballidis. “Criminal penalties are extremely rare against employers and possible only when willful violations of safety rules are the direct cause of death of an employee.”
Since OSHA was passed in 1970, there have been a total of 84 criminal prosecutions based on worker deaths. The civil penalties, while imposed more often than criminal sanctions, are generally fairly ineffective. The median amount paid out after settlement when a worker is killed is only $5,715. The average fine that an employer must pay when cited for willful safety violations is only $2,156.
These fines provide virtually no incentive for employers to ensure workplace safety. Employers in California and throughout the United States may find it is far more profitable to allow unsafe conditions to exist and to take the chance of a violation and small fine in the event of an inspection.
The reduction in the percentage of the population in labor unions has also made it possible for employers to take an anti-worker stance. Moreover, employers’ increasing reliance on temporary workers undermines camaraderie that might lead to workers standing up for each other in a dangerous situation. Companies employing undocumented immigrants also have even less incentive to try to protect their workers since the undocumented immigrants would almost always be unable or afraid to take legal action.
Until more priority is placed at both a federal and a state level on enforcing rules mandating safe worksites, there is little to ensure that the next workplace disaster in the U.S. won’t be just as bad as the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
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