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
(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
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).