US work-related deaths top 150 a day, finds AFL-CIO report

The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas, in this file picture taken early April 18, 2013.
The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas, in this file picture taken early April 18, 2013.
REUTERS/Mike Stone/Files

Roughly 150 people died from work-related illness or injury per day in 2011, according to a new report the AFL-CIO released on Tuesday. Fatal workplace injuries claimed 13 lives per day, while work-related illness and disease killed an additional 137 people daily.

Although occupational fatality rates have trended downward in the years since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the gradual improvement of workplace safety seems to have halted in recent years.

“After years of steady decline, for the past three years the job fatality rate has essentially been unchanged,” according to the report.

The fishing and logging industries had the highest fatality rates, while public sector jobs in fire safety and nursing led the field in non-fatal injuries and illnesses. North Dakota, currently undergoing a significant oil boom, had the highest fatality rate of all 50 states, while Pennsylvania had the lowest.

Latino workers die in disproportionate numbers. The fatality rate among Latino workers alone was 14% higher than among the population as a whole. As many as 68% of the Latinos who were killed on the job in 2011 were born outside of the United States.

The AFL-CIO’s annual report on workplace death and injury collected data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). The most recent version of the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries estimates that 4,693 people were killed on the job [PDF], at a rate of approximately 13 deaths per day, but that report doesn’t include work-related illness.

AFL-CIO claims that the work-related illnesses, which the BLS excludes from its figures, amounted to 50,000 deaths over the course of the year, or 137 per day. That figure, though stark, appears to be corroborated by a June 2012 presentation [PDF] given by Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels.

“Perhaps as many as 50,000 workers die [every year] from illnesses in which workplace exposures were a contributing factor,” the presentation said.

The AFL-CIO report comes only a few weeks after one of the worst domestic industrial accidents in recent memory: The West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion which killed 14 people and left homeless or wounded hundreds more in the surrounding area. Investigations after the explosion suggest that weak enforcement and regulatory gaps may have helped to make such a disaster possible.

The AFL-CIO report urges Congress to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act, legislation intended to strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Currently, OSHA is so understaffed that it would take state agencies as many as 67 years to inspect every American workplace.