NEW YORK — The number of workplace-related deaths and injuries decreased slightly in 2009 according to the nation’s largest labor union, but that’s not because of any significant changes in safety regulations. Instead, the loss of jobs due to the recession has simply kept many employees away from the most harmful workplaces.
“You can’t suffer workplace mortality if you’re not working,” said Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist at AFL-CIO and one of the authors of the report. Many of the most deadly industries — construction, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing — were among the most decimated in the past several years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, economic factors played a major role in the decline of workplace deaths.
In 2009, 4,340 workers were killed on the job, a decrease of 874 deaths from the 2008 figure. And occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances are responsible for an estimated 50,000 deaths each year, according to the report. The data, compiled from the BLS and published annually by the AFL-CIO, is preliminary, and the total number of deaths is expected to increase slightly when more complete data is released later in the spring. The report estimates the true number of workplace related injuries — reported and unreported — to fall between 8 and 12 million per year.
Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, workplace safety and health conditions have steadily improved — the year the act was signed, 13,800 workers were killed on the job. But, the report reads, “too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death.” For this, the report lays heavy blame on the Bush administration for “eight years of neglect and inaction” that “seriously eroded safety and health protections.”
“The Obama administration,” the introduction to the report reads, “has returned OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to their mission to protect workers’ safety and health.”
But some experts say the AFL-CIO’s assessment may be too generous to the current administration.
“We are still waiting for the Obama administration to propose a substantive health or safety standard,” said Celeste Monforton, an assistant research professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services who was previously employed as a policy analyst at OSHA. “So the facts don’t really support what the AFL-CIO is saying. I think [Obama and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] have good intentions, but it can’t just be an intention. It has to be an action.”
The Obama administration has taken certain small steps to increase workplace health and safety, such as increasing funding for OSHA and hiring additional inspectors. Still, the report cautions, at its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 129 years to inspect each workplace in its jurisdiction just once.
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