New AFL-CIO Report Provides Insight Into Workplace Injuries and Deaths

The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of labor unions in the United States. All told, the organization represents some 12.2 million working men and women.

The primary mission of the AFL-CIO is simple: to improve the lives of working families.

Workplace health and safety is one focal point of that mission. For each of the last 20 years, the AFL-CIO has released a report detailing the state of safety and health protections for American workers.

This year's report, entitled "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect" paints a picture of workplace safety that leaves much room for improvement.

Number of Workplace Deaths and Injuries

Preliminary data compiled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there were 4,340 workplace deaths caused by traumatic injury in 2009, the most recent year for which information was available. This means that every day, on average, 12 workers go to work and never return home because of an on-the-job injury. These injury figures do not account for occupational diseases, estimated to take an additional toll of some 50,000 lives annually — 137 every day.

Although traumatic worker deaths were actually down in 2009 compared to 2008, the economic recession was largely to blame: fewer hours were worked in 2009, especially in dangerous industries like construction.

Over 4.1 million nonfatal work-related injuries and illnesses were reported by employers in 2009. However, due to underreporting, the actual number of illness and injuries that occurred is estimated to be much higher. For one thing, injury and illness data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics excludes many categories of workers (anyone who is self-employed, agricultural workers at farms with fewer than 11 employees, employees of the federal government, etc.).

In addition, both employers and employees are often reluctant to report on-the-job injuries. Employers may be concerned about increasing their workers' compensation costs, losing government contracts because of high injury rates or being subjected to an OSHA inspection. Employees, on the other hand, may not report an injury to avoid discipline or being labeled as accident prone; they may desire to take advantage of employer programs that offer rewards for going a certain number of days without an injury, or they simply may not know how to use the workers' compensation system.

Considering these factors, the AFL-CIO's report puts the true number of job injuries at somewhere between 8 million and 12 million every year.

Safety Oversights

It is the responsibility of employers to provide a safe, healthful workplace for their workers. Even though many employers are genuinely concerned about employee well-being, at times business considerations come into conflict with safety standards. Whenever corners are being cut in terms of safety, government regulators may be the only ones empowered to facilitate worker protection.

The AFL-CIO's report describes the number of workplace inspectors as "woefully inadequate." In addition, the AFL-CIO considers OSHA penalties to be too weak to effectively deter safety violations.

In Illinois, for example, there are presently 77 workplace safety and health inspectors. In fiscal year 2010, they conducted inspections at only 3,955 of Illinois' 374,350 work sites. At current rates, it would take OSHA more than 94 years to inspect each Illinois workplace once.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act sets forth fines and even criminal sanctions for certain violations. But, in 2010 the average safety violation cost Illinois employers just $991. OSHA criminal charges are misdemeanors and are limited to instances in which a willful violation led to a worker death. Calling OSHA criminal penalties rare would be an understatement: since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted in 1970, there have been more than 360,000 worker deaths, but only 84 prosecutions. The defendants convicted in these prosecutions collectively served a total of 89 months in jail.

Deaths and Injuries Still Too Common, But Compensation Is Available

Every year, job-related injuries and illness result in estimated costs between $159 billion and $318 billion. Of course, the monetary losses pale in comparison to the suffering experienced by injured workers and their families.

Even though workplace fatalities are down, high injury and illness numbers, the fact that safety regulators are vastly overextended, and significant workplace tragedies in the last year — including the explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and the BP oil rig disaster — show that many workers are still at serious risk.

By law, Illinois employers are required to have workers' compensation insurance for their workers; wherever you may be employed, there should be resources set aside to compensate you should you be injured on the job.

Holding employers accountable for workplace injuries and deaths provides you with the financial benefits you deserve; it also encourages employers to establish safer working conditions.

If you have suffered an on-the-job injury, contact an Illinois workers' compensation attorney today.