An article published recently by The Oregonian on workplace deaths makes sober reading on this Labor Day Monday. It notes that “altogether 41 men and 5 women died from workplace accidents and injuries” in our state last year. “The number includes both Oregon and out-of-state residents who perished within the state’s borders, but excludes at least 28 others who died on the job from suicide, heart attack, stroke or other natural causes unrelated to their work.”
As the newspaper notes, the rate of workplace deaths both in Oregon and in the country as a whole has declined dramatically over the last three decades. Moreover, while Oregon’s workplace death rate of 2.9 per 100,000 workers is lower than the national average of 3.3 per 100,000 it is noticeably higher than the rates in neighboring California (2.4) and Washington State (1.7).
One can speculate why this might be the case. As I have often documented on this blog, Oregon has an unusually large number of people who work in relatively dangerous occupations – such as logging and truck driving. Whatever its cause, the fact that our state’s workplace fatality rate is unusually high by regional standards is a clear cause for concern.
Employment liability law here in Oregon requires the provision of a safe work environment. Employers who ignore this put their employees at risk and leave themselves open to the possibility of an Oregon wrongful death lawsuit should the worst happen. The important thing to understand from a legal perspective is the extent to which this obligation extends to third parties – especially in an era when so much work is outsourced or done on a contract or freelance basis.
As an Oregon and Washington workplace safety attorney who has handled many wrongful death cases I believe it is important for employers to understand that their responsibility for workplace safety does not end when they sub-contract work out to a third party. A contractor has a responsibility to provide a safe work environment, but the ultimate employer has a responsibility to ensure that its contractors actually follow-through on this obligation. As we mark Labor Day let us all remember that today is not just about recognizing the contributions working people make to American life, it is also about remembering the struggles for the right to work safely that have gone on for so many decades and still continue today.