On this May Day it is appropriate to pause for a moment and give some thought to workplace safety. With that in mind I’d like to highlight a rather stunning statistic that appeared in the pages of The Oregonian this week: more than 54,000 Americans die every year from workplace-linked causes. That figure was part of a report published by the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety, drawing on data gathered by the federal government.
According to the study, in 2013 (the most recent year for which figures are available) 4,585 workers died on the job in the United States. That figure is far too high, but based on what we all know regarding dangerous jobs such as logging, truck driving or working in certain types of industrial facilities it is, perhaps, not overly surprising for a country the size of ours. In addition to that, however: “an additional 50,000 people die each year from long-term exposure to workplace hazards such as asbestos, silica and benzene, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” the report said, according to The Oregonian.
That figure is, frankly, stunning, especially when one considers that one of the toxic agents named – asbestos – is a product whose dangers have been known for decades. Add to that the paper’s comment that “proven prevention strategies are available for all the major categories which result in worker deaths, including transportation incidents, contacts with objects and equipment, falls, workplace violence, exposure to harmful substances and environments, and fires and explosions” and one has to ask why these numbers are so high.
The solution, according to the group that compiled the study, is to focus the minds of employers by making worker deaths more costly for them in both financial and reputational terms. “We need tougher penalties. We need prosecutions for criminal violations. And we need to listen to workers, and use proven strategies that protect all workers,” says Mary Vogel of the NCOHS, the group that conducted the study. The paper also notes that her organization is working with organized labor and others to make the safety data (which is drawn from public records) more widely available as a way of highlighting which industries are taking this problem seriously and which ones are not.
As a Portland attorney with a special interest in Oregon industrial accidents, workplace safety and wrongful death cases I am saddened to see numbers like these still plaguing the American workplace in the second decade of the 21st century. I also believe it is important to hold companies to account for the harm they cause to their employees and to our communities. Everyone is entitled to reasonable safety at work – even people doing dangerous jobs should know that appropriate precautions are being taken to protect them. It is especially difficult to read that so many people are dying from preventable illnesses and injuries years or decades after the fact. This is a problem we can and must fix.