Discussion over what can be done to jumpstart the stagnating American economy dominates this bitterly divided election year. Unemployment remains above 8 percent. Almost 14 million people are currently out of work; many more have stopped looking.
But as policymakers and politicians compete to see who can defeat their opponents in the spin game to pout their definition on the nation’s economic crisis, a startling question needs to be asked: Are Americans better off without a job? With more Americans killed on the job every year than the total number of U.S. fatalities over the entirety of the war in Iraq, the question is a fair one.
Millions of people are desperately searching for whatever work is available. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, eager to score points for “creating jobs” and wooed by corporate lobbyists and unchecked contributions to campaign organizations like super-PACs, are doling out an unprecedented number of sweetheart deals and legislative goodies to private sector businesses. And regulations are being cut back at a record pace even as vital government agencies charged with oversight of increasingly brazen corporate miscreants are seeing budgets for programs that didn’t get eliminated slashed by millions of dollars.
Lost in the overwhelming coverage of the nation’s economic crisis and high unemployment has been a disturbing and deadly trend of rapidly eroding workplace safety. American businesses, long praised as the safest in the world, have been killing off their employees “behind closed doors” at a growing pace. In the rush to compete with overseas factories and with the growing demand as the economy slowly rebounds, American workers have become the gruesome collateral damage.
In the last two years for which data is available, 2009 and 2010, nearly 5,000 U.S. workers died in on-the-job incidents. As noted above, these figures are more than the total deaths during the Iraq war and, when combined with the 50,000 people that die from work-related disease and illness every year, are tantamount to if ”a fully loaded Boeing 737-700 crashed every day.”
Most of these deaths go unnoticed by the media, lawmakers, and even regulators. When they are uncovered and businesses do face government oversight, the most lenient punishment is almost always used by regulators who critics contend are more interested in protecting the bottom line of private business than preventing future deaths and injuries. In the end, the average penalty for an on-the-job death is only a little over $7,000.
In one Pennsylvania incident, a worker at a U.S. Steel plant died in an explosion tied to unsafe conditions at the plant, yet Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA, the agency charged with overseeing workplace safety — did not issue any fine or other form of punishment as is typically required after a workplace death.
Regulators found that work conditions at the company were inherently dangerous and either broke or bent a litany of safety regulations. As costs were under constant pressure to be reduced, workers like the Pennsylvania man eventually killed at the plant as well as equipment and safety standards were all being pushed to the breaking point.
This case is far from an outlier, as critics of OSHA point to degraded oversight and disinterest from the government in accident prevention even as corporations seek greater productivity from fewer workers, creating a toxic brew of unsafe conditions. .
Early on the morning of Sept. 3, 2009, Nicholas Adrian Revetta left the Pittsburgh suburb of Pleasant Hills and drove 15 minutes to a job at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant, a soot-blackened industrial complex on the Monongahela River. He never returned home.
Stocky and stoic, Revetta was working that Thursday as a laborer for a U.S. Steel contractor at the same plant that employed his brother, for the same company that had employed his late father. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., gas leaking from a line in the plant’s Chemicals and Energy Division found an ignition source and exploded, propelling Revetta backward into a steel column and inflicting a fatal blow to his head. Thirty-two years old, he left behind a wife and two young children.
Nick Revetta’s death did not make national headlines. No hearings were held into the accident that killed him. No one was fired or sent to jail.
“These deaths take place behind closed doors,” says Michael Silverstein, recently retired head of Washington State’s workplace safety agency. “They occur one or two at a time, on private property. There’s an invisibility element.”
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, American workers are entitled to “safe and healthful” conditions. Nick Revetta’s death and the events that followed lay bare the law’s limitations, showing how safety can yield to speed, how even fatal accidents can have few consequences for employers, and how federal investigations can be cut short by what some call a de facto quota system.
In the Revetta case, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — failed to issue even a minor citation to U.S. Steel, the world’s 12th-largest steelmaker and an economic leviathan in Western Pennsylvania. The company paid no fine, although current and former workers say that U.S. Steel’s contractors — including Revetta’s employer, Power Piping Co. — faced intense pressure to finish their work.
OSHA did look into Revetta’s death, as required by law. Michael Laughlin, a safety inspector from the agency’s Pittsburgh office, spent more than two months on the case, working tirelessly to find the cause of the explosion. Yet emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Laughlin’s requests for help went unanswered, and he was pulled off the investigation by a supervisor striving to meet inspection goals.
The most recent year for workplace safety data is 2010, and it shows a continuation in the ugly trend of rising workplace fatalities and worsening safety for American workers. 4,690 people suffered fatal work-related injuries that year, an increase of 3 percent from 2009.
Advocates for workplace safety say that “progress has stalled” as regulators like OSHA take a kid gloves approach to businesses, even those that have a history of serious safety violations.
The life of one 19-year-old industrial worker killed at an unsafe work site was deemed to be worth just $16,000 by federal regulators investigating the incident. His parents have now joined efforts to lobby Congress and the government to stiffen regulations.
Among those who died in 2010 was 19-year-old Emilio DeLeon, who was electrocuted in a construction accident in Grand Island, Neb. His father, Albert, was in Washington last week to attend a Senate hearing on worker safety and put a statement into the record.
“Our family has been to therapy to help us cope with the loss of our son,” DeLeon’s statement reads. “The pain and loss is present when I go to sleep and is there when I wake up in the morning. I have lost my Dad, Mom and Sister, and I have to tell you that losing my Son is the worst feeling I have ever had to endure.”
The construction company that employed Emilio DeLeon was fined only $16,600 for his death by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, even though OSHA had cited the firm for serious safety violations four months prior to the fatal accident. “They were allowed to continue with business as usual,” Albert DeLeon wrote in his statement.
Working Americans are being faced with unbearable pressure and systematic assault from almost every angle, from the loss of bargaining rights by public and private workers to an increasingly business-friendly regulatory environment. Americans are working for less than ever before, with incomes and net worth plummeting since the recession, and the benefits many workers spent their entire careers striving for being wiped out in austerity reforms pushed by lawmakers installed into power with money from private interests.
Even more troubling, workplace safety is eroding into conditions not seen since the early 20th century, when regulations were non-existent until public tragedies pushed politicians to act.
While all workers are not faced with a life-threatening work environment, many face systematic abuse and a chronic disregard for basic regulations and safety standards. Two of the nation’s most “well-respected” corporations employing hundreds of thousands of Americans are also the worst offenders in basic mistreatment and allegations of unsafe conditions..
Amazon.com, the online retailing giant, was outed in the Los Angeles Times last year for dreadful working conditions at its huge number of stocking and shipping warehouses across the country. Employees say they were locked in airless buildings without water or air-conditioning and forced to work for dozens of hours, with some employees denied access to emergency treatment when they were faced with medical issues due to their working conditions.
Amazon is heralded by politicians and community leaders for creating thousands of jobs as the company continues to grow, but their low prices for millions of products come at the real cost of worker safety.
That trade-off is also apparent at brick-and-mortar discount giant Walmart, where allegations of employee mistreatment have been plaguing the company for decades. Banned from organizing as a union, independent groups of current and former Walmart employees continue to present charges of abuse against the retailer, with over 5,000 members of one organization accusing the company of a long list of cruel behavior, from forcing long and inconsistent hours on employees with family and medical issues to tinkering with schedules to deny proper benefits.
These disastrous consequence are the result of an agenda of acquiescence towards private businesses and calculated decisions by the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress to deconstruct the system of workplace oversight that had been built over much of the 20th century.
While workplace fatalities have risen to the eye-popping totals of 2009 and 2010, OSHA has actually been steadily contracting its number of workplace inspections since President Obama took office. The agency has already pared its goal of nationwide inspections by more than 1,000 for fiscal year 2012.
Two weeks after a Center for Public Integrity story highlighted concerns about alleged quotas imposed on federal workplace safety inspectors, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has pared its inspection goal for the year.
OSHA had established a target of 42,250 inspections nationwide for fiscal year 2012, which ends Sept. 30. An OSHA spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the new goal is 41,000 inspections.
The revision was made primarily because the agency has been conducting “more complex, time consuming” inspections this year, the spokesman wrote in an email.
OSHA told the Center it sets goals, not quotas. But some former agency managers said that inspectors who fail to “make their numbers” face repercussions from their bosses.
The assault on safety regulation is a dual threat, as steps taken by the administration to appease businesses and corporate interests are surpassed by the even more dangerous and aggressive agenda of Congress intent on dismantling much of OSHA and scrubbing the government’s system of safety oversight.
Legislation passed or proposed by House Republicans in the last six months target a wide array of worker protections and the most basic regulations that keep the number of workplace deaths from soaring even higher.
Various legislation in Congress would ban the government from implementing policies that encourage employers to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses, eliminate protections against black lung disease among mine workers, and eliminate means for employees to challenge businesses on unfair wage and benefit practices as well as safety violations.
Congress is also taking dead aim at OSHA itself, repeatedly seeking to nearly halve the agency’s annual budget and openly complaining that such protections and oversight as conducted by the government are “job killing” and that OSHA should not “shame an employer” after fatal or serious workplace accidents.
Under the Obama Administration, OSHA has sharply ramped up enforcement, an approach that Republicans say threatens jobs. At a recent hearing on the issue, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Michigan Republican Tim Walberg, questioned the agency’s priorities.
“Over the last two years, OSHA has not only attempted to implement several policy changes that would have profound impact on the workplace; it has become an administration more focused on punishment than prevention,” Walberg said. “Our goal should be to prevent workplace accidents before they happen, not simply shame an employer once a tragedy has occurred on the job site.”