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 291 years!
(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 percent.
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 saves lives.
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).