Killing Work

Want to kill somebody and get away with a slap on the wrist? You’d be hard pressed to find

a better way than being a employer who endangers his or her employees. Under the U.S.

Occupational Safety and Health Act, violations of health and safety rules that pose a

substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers are considered

"serious" violations. This is roughly the standard needed to convict for

criminal manslaughter in some states.

The average penalty for a serious violation is $709, according to "Death on the

Job: The Toll of Neglect," a new report by the AFL-CIO. If an employer commits a

serious violation of a Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule, and

employees are lucky enough to avoid injury or death as a result, there is a very good

chance the violation will never be cited. According to the AFL-CIO report, in Oregon, the

state with the highest proportional number of workplace inspectors, it would take 20 years

for inspectors to pay a single visit to every state workplace. In Florida, it would take

291 years!

(The disparity between states comes because federal workplace safety rules are

administered and enforced at the state level, by state agencies that receive approval from

the federal OSHA or by the federal agency.)

In significant part because of this criminally weak penalty structure and enforcement,

the United States experiences a staggering amount of work-related death, disease. and

injury, much of it preventable. There were more than 6,200 deaths on the job due to

traumatic injuries in the United States in 1997. The death toll from work-related disease

is nearly 10 times higher. There were more than 6 million workplace-related injuries and

illnesses recorded in 1997, with more than 1.8 million of them causing time lost from the

job. Internationally, the death toll from workplace injuries and disease is mind-numbing.

The International Labor Organization estimates that, every year, 1.1 million people around

the globe either die on the job or from occupational disease.

The U.S. experience in recent decades makes clear that job-related death and disease is

not inevitable. Since the passage of the Occupational and Safety Act in 1970, and despite

the lax enforcement of OSHA rules, overall industry fatality rates have fallen by 75

percent. Construction fatality rates have been cut by almost 80 percent, mining rates by

75 percent, agricultural rates by nearly two thirds, and manufacturing rates by 60


Despite the considerable gains of the last couple decades, industry is determined to

undermine OSHA’s already weak position, and to block the few initiatives that the agency

is trying to move.

With excruciatingly painful repetitive stress injuries skyrocketing in recent years

thanks to workplace speed-ups and the introduction of computer keyboards, computer

scanners and other new technologies, corporations have focused their energies on blocking

OSHA ergonomics regulations.

The National Coalition on Ergonomics, an employer association consisting of everything

from the American Bakers Association to the Institute of Makers of Explosives, has worked

to prevent OSHA from adopting standards intended to cut down on repetitive motion

injuries. Among the main corporate opponents of sensible repetitive motion injury

regulations has been UPS, which is among the leading violators of OSHA regulations.

The corporations’ party line: we need more research before taking action. The National

Coalition on Ergonomics maintains this position even after an October 1, 1998 report from

the National Academy of Sciences — itself commissioned in response to industry demands

for more studies — confirmed that ergonomic injuries are a serious workplace problem, and

that changes on the job can prevent injuries.

There is indeed a need for more research in the area of workplace hazards and

especially occupational diseases — the National Institute of Occupational Safety and

Health is by far the least well-funded of the National Institutes of Health — but it has

long been clear that tough enforcement of workplace safety rules prevents injuries and

saves lives.

A stronger OSHA and stronger OSHA regulations are no panacea — among other things,

workers must be empowered to confront workplace dangers directly, including through

exercise of a right to refuse hazardous work — but they are critically important in

efforts to reduce death and injury on the job.

Is it too much for workers to expect that employers who put their lives at risk pay

more than a $709 fine?

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are

authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy

(Common Courage Press, 1999; see http://www.corporatepredators.org).



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