Last week was Workers Memorial Week, and workers and their supporters around the country marked the occasion by remembering those killed on the job and by occupational illnesses. It was also an occasion to call for changes to make workplaces safer and prevent future fatalities.
Preventable deaths and inadequate responses
The AFL-CIO released its annual “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” report, which gives the shameful numbers on the toll of U.S. occupational injuries and illnesses in 2020. The authors found that 340 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions — a total of 4,764 worker deaths that year — and Latino and Black workers remain at greater risk of dying on the job than workers as a whole. Part of the problem is that there are too few Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors enforcing the law: just 1,719 for 10.4 million workplaces under the agency’s jurisdiction, which, the report explains, works out to one inspector for every 81,427 workers. The report’s list of recommendations includes full enforcement by OSHA, new worker protections and Congressional increases of funding and staffing at the agencies responsible for worker health and safety.
While the AFL-CIO report provides a big picture, National COSH’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list zeroes in on some of the individual employers whose insufficient attention to workplace health and safety places workers at risk. This year’s list includes Amazon and Starbucks, where workers are organizing and demanding safer working conditions.
National COSH’s release event began with the stories of three workers who lost their lives while working for Dirty Dozen employers: Jordan Romero, 27, killed at an Atlantic Coast Utilities construction site in Boston; Robert Woods, 42, murdered during a robbery at a St. Louis Dollar General store; and Janine Denise Johnson-Williams, 50, one of nine workers who died when a tornado struck the Mayfield Consumer Products Plant in Mayfield, Kentucky — a horrible loss of life that, according to other employees who spoke with NBC News, occurred after employees asked to leave the candle factory because of severe weather alerts and were told to stay on the job or risk being fired. “Workers who die on the job have names,” said Jessica Martinez, national COSH co-executive director. “We say their names out loud, we talk about how they died and we confront the reality that their deaths were preventable. Confronting this reality is essential so that workers can gain power to win safety improvements that will prevent further loss of life.”
Event attendees also heard from leaders who are advocating for safer conditions in their workplaces. “Amazon promotes profits over people,” said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker from Bessemer, Arkansas. “The pace of work contributed to the deaths of the six employees there.” Nikki Taylor, one of the seven Memphis Starbucks workers fired after they began unionization efforts — firings that the National Labor Relations Board deemed unlawful — explained that she and her co-workers decided to pursue a union because “we felt like we needed a voice in our safety.” In addition to unaddressed hazards like exposed wires catching fire and broken floor tiles that represent trip-and-fall hazards, Taylor explained that they found an initially strong company response to COVID-19 reversed as customers started to complain about things like mask requirements. “You want to go to work and feel safe. You want to go to work and feel protected. You want to go to work and feel like ‘I’m not gonna bring a sickness home to my eight-year-old,’” she said.
Calls to protect against COVID-19
While workers and their supporters were recognizing Workers Memorial Day, OSHA was holding an Informal Rulemaking Hearing for Occupational Exposure to COVID-19 in Healthcare Settings, a step in its work to adopt a final COVID-19 standard for health-care workplaces. Witnesses from the several unions and public health organizations spoke in favor of a strong standard to protect a group of workers that has done so much and faced immeasurable challenges over the past two years.
The day before the four-day hearing began, 111 experts in experts in occupational safety and health, medicine, epidemiology, industrial hygiene, aerosol science, public health law and other relevant fields — including two former heads of OSHA — submitted a letter to OSHA supporting the establishment of a strong and permanent standard to protect health-care workers from COVID-19.
The letter urges OSHA that the final Occupational Exposure to COVID-19 in Healthcare Settings standard be more protective than the emergency temporary standard the agency had issued but stopped enforcing. That standard, the letter explains, did not adequately reflect the current understanding of the importance of aerosol exposure (the way the virus spreads via droplets so small they can remain suspended in the air for long periods of time) or the fact that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic people, including those who are vaccinated. The signatories ask OSHA for a final standard that protects all health-care workers from airborne exposure, does not consider following CDC guidance (which is inadequate in some cases) to be sufficient, recognizes transmission by asymptomatic infected individuals, protects workers regardless of vaccination status, includes paid leave for workers who need to isolate because of infection or quarantine because of exposure, expands recordkeeping requirements, and prepares for the possible evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into a new novel strain.
The extent to which OSHA adopts and enforces strong worker protection standards — for COVID-19 and for the many other hazards that have been claiming lives for years — will influence how many workers we’re mourning at this time next year.
Liz Borkowski is a contributor to the public health blog The Pump Handle. She is managing editor of Women’s Health Issues, the peer-reviewed journal of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, and a researcher in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Share Facebook Twitter Linkedin