Pay attention, damnit: More than 6,000 Americans are killed on the job every year. More than three million are injured, at least half of them seriously. Another 60,000 die from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances on the job.
Think of it: That's an average of at least 16 workers killed and 17,000 injured on each and every day of each and ever6y year, another 164 dying daily from job-related illness.
And consider the money involved: as much as $275 billion a year -- yes, $275 billion -- in general health care costs and such other costs as lost wages and production and the costs to taxpayers who fund the medical, welfare and social insurance programs that injured and ill workers often rely on.
But despite the heavy loss of life, despite the human suffering, despite the high dollar cost, relatively few people seem to care. The urgently-repeated demands of organized labor and its allies for government action have been largely ignored by the government and general public alike.
Unions have long demanded strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the federal agency, OSHA, that enforces it. For 34 years, OSHA has been the only real tool for protecting workers from occupational hazards, yet it has been woefully underfunded and woefully lax in enforcing the law, particularly under President Bush.
OSHA has just 900 inspectors covering the six million worksites and 100 million workers in the agency's jurisdiction and an annual budget of only about $475 million. Even when inspectors cite employers for violations, the fines generally are small -- less than $1,000 for even the most serious violations -- and often go uncollected. Jail sentences are rare, even for those 100 or so employers a year who are found to have caused workers' deaths by willful violations of the law. The most they face is a misdemeanor penalty of six months in jail.
Some 40 million workers are not even covered by the law, including local and state government employees, who have about 20 percent more on-the-job injuries and work-related illnesses than workers in private industry. Among the others not covered are farmworkers, whose occupation is the country's most dangerous, one in which 1,500 workers a year are killed, one-fifth of them children.
Extending coverage to the excluded workers is only one of the many reforms that have been sought by the AFL-CIO and others for more than a decade. They also want the government to require creation of programs at all worksites to train workers in health and safety matters. Joint labor-management committees would run the programs, investigate accidents, shut down hazardous operations, conduct inspections and otherwise oversee day-to-day safety.
Workers, furthermore, would have the absolute right to turn down unusually dangerous work and to report unsafe conditions without fear of employer retaliation.
OSHA would have a much larger budget and the authority to move much faster against violators, substantially increase fines and penalties, tighten regulations governing worker exposure to toxins and create health and safety standards and regulations for the many fields of risk now ignored by the government.
The most pressing need is for rules protecting the millions of computer operators, assembly line workers, supermarket clerks and others who suffer the serious neck and back problems, chronically sore arms and wrists and other "repetitive motion injuries" that account for more than 60 percent of all on-the-job injuries, some of them permanently disabling.
Such regulations, based on a decade of research by safety experts, were enacted in the waning days of the Clinton administration. But they were repealed shortly after President Bush took office, along with dozens of other job safety regulations. Bush also cut OSHA's budget, revoked previously approved grants for safety and health training programs created for immigrants, small business employers and workers and employers in high-risk industries such as construction, and otherwise acted to considerably weaken the agency's already feeble operations.
Unless widespread attention is finally paid to the serious hazards facing American workers, Bush will continue denying them the help they need and deserve from their government -- and ours. Workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses can be prevented -- but only if we are determined to prevent them.
Copyright (c) 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.dickmeister.com).