“Unconscionable”: Uncle Sam spends just $3.99 on job safety as Black and Latino worker deaths soar

Federal government spends just $3.99 per worker on workplace safety compliance and “underreporting is widespread"

Published May 3, 2023 4:30AM (EDT)

Worker. (Getty Images/krisanapong detraphiphat)
Worker. (Getty Images/krisanapong detraphiphat)

This article originally appeared on Work-Bites

Despite decades of progress in worker safety since the creation of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, there's troubling evidence of deadly backsliding particularly for the nation's Black and Latino workers, according to a comprehensive analysis from the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation.

In 2021, the fatality rate for Black workers spiked from 3.5 to 4.0 per 100,000 workers with more than 650 dying on the job, the most in nearly two decades," according to the AFL-CIO's 32nd annual report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect

"Latino workers have the greatest risk of dying on the job, with a fatality rate at 4.5 per 100,000 workers that has grown by 13 percent over the past decade," according to a press release that accompanied the report released to mark Worker Memorial Day on April 28.  "There was also a slight uptick in deaths for Latino workers in 2021" with the overwhelming majority of the 1,130 who died being immigrants.

Overall, in 2021 nearly 5,200 workers were killed on the job, with close to 500 of those having been murdered. Another 120,000 workers died prematurely from a disease they had contracted as a consequence of their employment.

The AFL-CIO's annual 240-page research report is a national and state-by-state profile of worker safety and health data points from 2021 but has very limited COVID data because very little was collected by the agencies tracking workplace deaths. 

The only government data on occupational COVID deaths was kept by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for nursing homes. Since June 2020, 3,009 nursing home workers have died from COVID with the country averaging 18 nursing home worker COVID deaths per week, according to the AFL-CIO research report.

"The true impact of COVID-19 infections due to workplace exposures is unknown," the AFL-CIO asserted. "Limited data show that more than 1.5 million nursing home workers have been infected."

"Every American should be alarmed and outraged by the tragic data unearthed in this report," said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. "It is unconscionable that in the wealthiest nation in the world, Black and Latino workers are facing the highest on-the-job fatality rates in nearly two decades. This report is more than a wake-up call, it is a call to action. No one should have to risk their lives for their livelihoods. There is no corporate cost-benefit analysis that should put human life and worker safety on the wrong side of the ledger."

According to an investigation by the Guardian Newspapers and Kaiser Health News, 453 New York state healthcare workers died in the first wave of the COVID pandemic which came amidst a national shortage of N-95 masks. In New Jersey 268 perished. Nationally, over 3,600 healthcare workers perished in the first year of the pandemic. Close to two-thirds of them were people of color.

Currently, the federal government spends just $3.99 per worker on workplace safety compliance and "underreporting is widespread" with fewer than 2,000 state and federal inspectors to inspect and monitor the country's almost 10.8 million workplaces. As a consequence, the AFL-CIO reports, with only one inspector for every 77,334 workers, it would take 190 years for OSHA to inspect each site over which it has jurisdiction once.

"The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous — estimated at $174 billion to $348 billion a year," the national confederation of unions estimated.

"I read through the report and the clear takeaway that worker safety is simply not funded adequately enough in this country," said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. "What's particularly glaring to me is that when you see there are over ten million workplaces under OSHA's jurisdiction — the fact that there are over 900 at the federal level and 971 at the state level — as well as the funding issues we've had over the years — the only takeaway is that this country does not take worker safety as seriously as is needed and we have seen that playout with too many deaths in the workplace."

Alvarez told Work-Bites that there's a direct connection between enhancing workplace safety and protecting the public health of the broader community in sectors like construction and healthcare.

"There is a direct connection in the healthcare industry between protecting healthcare worker safety and the impact on patient safety with safe staffing levels and PPE during the pandemic — it's just a question of our priorities," Alvarez said. "We have seen at different times over the years in our country there being greater attention and focus on this, yet other times when we unfortunately slide back. The results are what we are seeing now — the highest rate of death for Black workers in two decades and the greatest risk for Latinos dying on the job as well."

Alvarez continued, "We have to deal with the fact that when we see workers deaths taking place and when there has been direct negligence on the part of an employer, we have to make sure that those people are held accountable and criminally prosecuted when that it proven, and we have seen far too little of that over the years as well."

Dr. Edward Zuroweste is a physician and the founding director of the Migrant Clinicians Network, an international non-profit that serves migrant and immigrant workers. He's concerned that there's not been sufficient study done on the impacts on the health of the essential workforce that didn't have the option of working remotely during the COVID pandemic.

"It is interesting that the country seems to have moved on — everybody's just so tired of hearing about COVID that they don't want to do a deep dive into looking at how we can prevent this from happening the next time and that's really my biggest concern right now," Zuroweste said. "This is not the last pandemic. So, what have we done to make ourselves more resilient for the future? And unfortunately, I don't see what we've done to do better next time…it seems like the workers are dispensable like a commodity, especially essential workers."

Zuroweste notes that in working with migrant farm workers as well as with itinerant natural disaster cleanup crews he's flagged lack of access to basic healthcare as a major occupational health risk. "We are a country that is showing that without having universal affordable healthcare available causes deaths in the people that can't get it," Zuroweste said.

John Samuelsen is the international president of the Transport Workers Union, which includes TWU Local 100, which operates the MTA buses and subway and lost over a hundred members to COVID. He told Work-Bites that early on in the pandemic the union sought out the independent scientific expertise of New York University School of Global Public Health to survey the union workforce.

In October of 2020, the NYU research flagged that nearly 25 percent of Transport Workers Union Local 100 members had contracted the coronavirus and 90 percent of them feared getting it at work.

"Our research aims to identify and better understand the individual and workplace factors that put this essential workforce at risk for COVID-19, in an effort to protect their health and wellbeing," said Robyn Gershon, clinical professor of epidemiology at NYU School of Global Public Health, in a statement announcing the project. "We need to address this important gap in our knowledge about occupational exposure to coronavirus and use these findings to determine what additional protective measures are needed going forward."

Samuelsen said that the takeaways from the research were "invaluable" not just in New York City but had application in all the other jurisdictions where his 150,000-member union represents transit workers, a sector particularly hard hit by COVID.

"That research gave us a framework, a methodology, with the key being decompressing the worksites. So, like if 100 people were supposed to report to a bus depot we would have 50 report at one time — to spread it out over time with that kind of thing — and we saw a decline in COVID," Samuelsen recalled. "And it helped us fight that huge fight over trying to keep our bus drivers separated from the riding public had a profoundly positive effect as well." 

Samuelsen added, "Talking about Worker Memorial Day — one of the most important elements of it is to be prepared for the next pandemic and not to be taken by surprise again. We need to see the federal and state governments linking money to performance measures for properties like SEPTA in Philadelphia, Houston Metro, or New York City Transit, where the government orders them to invest in preventing outbreaks of infectious disease by using performance metrics like how much PPE stock they have on hand."

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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