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U.S. Workplaces: Unsafe and Unprotected

If George W. Bush ever worked in a factory manufacturing the popcorn that populates so many of our microwaves, he wouldn’t like the experience. And chances are, if had worked in such a factory, he wouldn’t be able to do the things he does best as president—like jog and clearing brush on his Crawford ranch.

Eric Peoples, 35, spent several years at Jasper Popcorn, where he developed bronchiolitis obliterans, a severe, progressive disease of the lungs. Eight other popcorn workers in Missouri came down with the same respiratory disease.

At that point, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began inspecting plants and determined the illnesses were caused by the chemical additive diacetyl. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is charged with overseeing workplace safety, did very little. It did not increase plant inspections or mandate safety standards for businesses, even as more workers became ill.

Only days before congressional hearings last week on the issue did the Bush administration take its first steps to protect diacetyl-exposed workers, as David Michaels reports on The Pump Handle, a health and safety blog.

Maybe if Bush’s lungs were at stake, he would have moved a little faster. (Check out the AFL-CIO BushWatch site to see the Bush administration’s troubling workplace safety record, including cutting funds for OSHA and reducing enforcement of safety rules.)

Peoples worked at Jasper in the 1990s. But even in 2005, more than 12,000 workers were injured or made ill each day from a range of workplace hazards (2005 is the most recent year for which data is available.) Even worse, 5,734 workers died from workplace injuries in 2005. And these statistics do not include deaths from occupational diseases, which claim the lives of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers each year.

For many of us, workplace safety and health is not high on the radar screen. But as the annual AFL-CIO safety and health report shows, injury and death on the job is a daily event. Released last week, the 2007 version of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect report again highlights how much still needs to be done to make our workplaces safe.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on employment and worker safety last week, Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s safety and health director, said although the number of workers and workplaces covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) today is double what it was in 1970 when it was passed, there are fewer resources available to OSHA to meet its responsibilities. Health and safety standards are out of date or non-existent for many workplace hazards. Millions of workers still are not covered by the OSH Act and lack even the most basic safety and health protections.

Seminario spoke in favor of legislation introduced April 26 that would increase penalties for companies that violate workplace safety rules. The Protecting America’s Workers Act would penalize companies a minimum of $50,000 for a willful OSHA violation that leads to a worker’s death. Currently, the minimum fine is $5,000.

The administration’s proposed fiscal year 2008 budget for worker safety and health programs provides $490 million for OSHA, which, adjusting for inflation, represents a $25 million cut since Bush took office. OSHA enforcement staffing levels have been cut from 1,683 positions to 1,543, and staffing for development of safety and health standards has decreased from 100 positions to 83. To inspect each U.S. workplace, it would take OSHA 133 years with its current number of inspectors.

It’s not as if health and safety issues are ameliorating. Just this week, the United Nation’s World Health Organization reported that cancer deaths resulting from occupational workplace hazards could increase significantly in the coming decades because of greater exposure of workers to carcinogens in developing countries. Or we might add, in countries where job safety and health is neglected.

Although the number of U.S. deaths on the job was down marginally from 2004 (5,734 in 2005 compared with 5,764 the previous year), the data shows significant increases in fatalities among Latino and foreign-born workers.

A 2005 AFL-CIO report, Immigrant Workers at Risk: The Urgent Need for Improved Workplace Safety and Health Policies and Programs, found an alarming rates of injury and death on the job among immigrants. Between 1992 and 2002, workplace fatalities among foreign-born workers increased by 46 percent between 1992 and 2002. Fatalities among Latino workers increased by 58 percent over the same period. Further, although the share of foreign-born employment increased by 22 percent between 1996 and 2000,
the share of fatal occupational injuries for this population increased by 43 percent.

Last weekend, workers here and around the world commemorated Workers Memorial Day, an annual time to honor those who died at work and to act to make our workplaces safer. Workers, elected officials and religious and community leaders took part in 12,000 activities in 118 countries to bring attention to the unfulfilled promise of safe and healthy workplaces.

The first Workers Memorial Day was observed in 1989. The date April 28 was chosen because it is the anniversary date of the creation of OSHA in 1971 and the day of a similar remembrance in Canada. Trade unionists around the world mark April 28 as an International Day of Mourning.

But for those injured or killed on the job, one day isn’t enough. Right now, our next step is passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (S. 1244 and H.R. 2049). Click here
to tell your senators and representative to co-sponsor the legislation to expand OSHA protections to millions of uncovered workers, enhance whistle-blower protections and substantially increase penalties for serious, willful and criminal safety violations.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell