When it comes to labor issues, health & safety regulations are quite literally a matter of life and death. Employers are legally responsible for providing a safe workplace for their employees, and yet workplace deaths and injuries happen every day. How well protected you are from injuries on the job varies widely depending on your state and industry. Some people are more likely to face risk than others: some of the most dangerous industries also hire workers from vulnerable populations for poverty wages. Safety inspectors across the country are understaffed and undertrained, but the current federal administration - with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress - is stripping protections when they need to be strengthened. It’s up to workers to ensure they get the protections they need from local governments.
Inconsistent and Inadequate Protection
OSHA sets federal standards for occupational health and safety, but states can form their own administrations to enforce standards and investigate violations. Twenty-one states have a state safety and health administration. Twenty-four states are only covered by federal OSHA; an additional five states have a state program that only covers public employees, leaving the rest of their workers to OSHA jurisdiction. Those state plans are inconsistent; while OSHA rates some (like Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health or DOSH) as highly effective, others struggle to meet effectiveness goals. And even highly regarded state programs like DOSH have problems with staffing - high turnover leads to less experienced inspectors and fewer inspections conducted. At the federal level, OSHA is also spread pretty thin, with staff cuts responsible for a declining number of inspections the last four years in a row.
But workers need more enforcement, not less. A recent National Employment Law Project (NELP) analysis of OSHA data found that there were 27 workplace injuries resulting in amputations or hospitalizations a day in the 29 states covered by federal OSHA - and those are injuries happening in just over half the country. Poultry and meat processing are one of the riskiest for workers, where injuries commonly occur due to a lack of machine guards or safety equipment, lack of training, or slippery floors. Employers in many construction and healthcare industries also had notably high injury rates. OSHA found that injuries may be severely underreported due to record-keeping violations and on-site medical units being used to “sow fear and distrust” among workers so that they won’t report injuries.
Not Everyone Shares the Same Risks
In Washington, we’re lucky to have the 4th lowest fatal injury rate for workers - 2.1 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015 (the most recent year for which we have data). But the riskiest industries for workplace fatalities in our state are agriculture, forestry, fishing & hunting; construction; and transportation & utilities. Construction’s workplace fatality rate is double the state average, and agriculture sees 13.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers - over six times the state average. The industries with the highest risks are those that employ some of the highest numbers of Latinx workers. Latinx workers are only around 10% of the adult workforce in Washington, but nearly half of all agricultural workers are Latinx. When a marginalized group is the majority in an industry where workers are most likely to die on the job, health and safety becomes a racial justice issue.
These discrepancies hold true at the national level, as well. Many of the industries with the highest injury rates also disproportionately hire immigrants or workers of color. Agriculture and construction in particular are two of the biggest employers of Latinx workers and also have some of the highest injury rates. Worker deaths sometimes make headlines - like Randy Vasquez, the Mabton dairy worker who drowned in a manure pit, or Honesto Silva Ibarra, the Sumas blueberry picker who died after falling ill in the fields. But most fall under the radar. In 2016 there were 14 fatalities in Washington state for agriculture and related industries. Over a third of those deaths were Hispanic or Latino workers. Of the 10 occupations with the most fatalities in Washington in 2017, 3 are agriculture-related occupations, and 1 is construction - jobs that disproportionately employ Hispanic or Latino workers.
The meat and poultry industry is particularly dangerous for workers nationwide. An investigative report by Pro Publica released last year detailed many of the problems rampant in the meat and poultry industry: in addition to exploiting refugee populations and using deceptive union-busting tactics, safety concerns abound. Amputations happen with alarming frequency, workers must pay to replace protective equipment, and they get disciplined for calling out sick - even with a doctor’s note. But refugee placement agencies will often send refugees to factory towns where these conditions prevail because the jobs don’t require English speaking skills or an American education.
Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses are also more common in many industries that employ Latinx and black workers at higher rates. These are industries that also tend to have low pay and limited access to paid sick time, like transportation and warehousing, construction, and agriculture.
Meanwhile, Congress and the Department of Labor under Trump’s administration is working hard to weaken OSHA’s ability to protect workers. For instance, House Joint Resolution 83, signed by the president and enacted in April, reduces record-keeping requirements from 5 years to 6 months. Without the threat of record-keeping violations, companies won’t have an incentive to keep records, which will undermine OSHA’s ability to investigate health and safety violations. Earlier this summer, OSHA proposed a rollback of rules enacted under the Obama administration designed to protect construction workers from beryllium exposure. It’s becoming increasingly clear that workers who don’t live in a state with its own health and safety administration will be left without needed protections.
In addition to directly attacking workplace protections, the Trump administration’s policies can have more indirect effects on worker health and safety. Many labor advocates are concerned that bad employers may threaten calls to ICE to prevent workers from reporting safety violations. In fact, there have been multiple studies in the past decade showing that immigration raids lead to lower enforcement of safety regulations as well as other labor protections. It stands to reason that the dramatic increase in raids under Trump will lead to a greater erosion of safety protections, especially in industries that hire large numbers of immigrants.
Many workplace deaths and injuries are preventable, as evidenced by the fact that when Washington implemented an injury and illness prevention program, workplace injuries and deaths went down significantly. Workers in states like Washington that have a state health and safety department must advocate for stronger enforcement and safety protections for workers.