By Sheri Williams
Union members and friends gathered on Workers’ Memorial Day, April 28, to honor those who died on the job in 2020, a devastating year in which the pandemic hit working families with loss, sickness and economic hardship.
During the candlelight vigil at Cesar Chavez Park, Sacramento Central Labor Council executive director Fabrizio Sasso said, “the sorrow of the past months will be with us for many years to come. We have lost so many family members, friends and co-workers to this devastating virus, and to other workplace deaths that could have been avoided. In their honor and in their memory, we will continue to fight not just for safe jobs, but for equity, fairness and a better future for all.”
The pandemic hit especially hard in Black and brown communities, and among first responders, service employees and others without the ability to work remotely. In California, studies showed that Latino people bore the brunt of deaths in many areas, including the Central Valley.
Sasso stressed that the SCLC is focusing on ensuring that all union members and their families have access to the vaccine, an important protection as restrictions are lifted.
“The Labor Council is working hard to make sure that everyone who wants the shot can get it easily,” he said. “There is never a charge, and immigration status does not matter. Getting the vaccine protects not just the person taking it, but everyone around them, family and friends.”
While the pandemic has vastly increased awareness of the dangers working people face on the job, unions have long fought for better conditions in workplaces and documented the dangers faced daily at worksites. In its latest “Death on the Job” report, detailing workplace fatalities in 2018, the AFL-CIO found that 5,250 workers lost their lives on the job as a result of traumatic injuries, according to fatality data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The rate of fatal job injuries in 2018 remained the same as 2017, at 3.5 per 100,000 workers. Each day in this country, an average of 14 workers die because of job injuries. This does not include workers who die from occupational diseases, estimated to be 95,000 each year. Chronic occupational diseases receive less attention, because most are not detected until years after workers have been exposed to toxic chemicals, and because occupational illnesses often are misdiagnosed and poorly tracked.
In total, on average 275 workers die each day due to job injuries and illnesses.
This December will be 50 years since Congress enacted the OSH Act, promising workers in this country the right to a safe job. More than 618,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the OSH Act, though more remains to be done. Too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death as chemical plant explosions, major fires, construction collapses, infectious disease outbreaks, workplace assaults and other preventable workplace tragedies continue to occur. Many other workplace hazards kill and disable thousands of workers each year, the report pointed out.
The authors also highlighted that workplace violence is a growing problem, especially for women, who suffer two out of every three assaults. Workplace violence is the third leading cause of job death, and results in more than 30,000 serious lost-time injuries each year. Nurses, medical assistants, emergency responders and social workers face some of the greatest threats, suffering more than 72% of all workplace assaults, researchers found.
Workers of color are also especially at risk of death, even before the pandemic—a risk even more pronounced for immigrants. In 2018, 961 Latino workers died on the job, an increase from 903 deaths in 2017, researchers noted. The fatality rate among Latino workers continues to be higher than the overall fatality rate of 3.5 per 100,000 workers. In 2018, 67% of Latino workers who died on the job (641) were born outside of the United States. In 2018, there were 1,028 workplace deaths reported for all immigrant workers, the highest number of fatalities in at least 12 years.
In 2018, workplace deaths increased for Black workers as well. About 615 Black workers died on the job, an increase from 530 deaths in 2017 and a 46% increase in the last decade. This is the first time the fatality rate for Black workers has been greater than the overall fatality rate in at least five years. The number of serious work injuries and illnesses also increased among Black workers (from 69,900 to 71,600).
Workplace deaths increased among older workers (ages 55 and older). People are working longer, and the number of workers ages 55 years and older has increased 84% since 1999. BLS estimates this trend will continue, and that by 2029, one in four workers will be 55 years or older, researchers said.
Another troubling trend looked at violent deaths on the job—workplace violence deaths increased (from 807 to 828) and are now the second-leading cause of job death. Since 2009, the workplace violence injury rate in private hospitals and home health services has more than doubled. During the Obama administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enhanced enforcement on workplace violence using the general duty clause of the OSH Act, updated guidance documents and committed to developing a workplace violence standard. In November 2019, the House passed the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1309, S. 851), requiring federal OSHA to promulgate a standard to protect these workers at especially high risk of violence on the job, but efforts stalled in the Senate.
In 2018, nearly 3.5 million workers across all industries, including state and local government, had work-related injuries and illnesses that were reported by employers, with 2.8 million injuries and illnesses reported in private industry. Due to limitations in the current injury reporting system and widespread underreporting of workplace injuries, this number understates the problem. The true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater, researchers said, or 7.0 million to 10.5 million injuries and illnesses a year. In 2018, state and local public sector employers reported an injury rate of 4.8 per 100 workers, significantly higher than the reported rate of 2.8 per 100 among private-sector workers.
The cost of these injuries and illnesses is enormous—estimated at $250 billion to $330 billion a year.
While those statistics present a sobering picture of changes that lie ahead, the April candlelight vigil brought the human toll to the numbers.
“My dad passed away 11 years ago on the jobsite because of unsafe working conditions. It could have been prevented,” said vice president of the Sacramento County Board of Education, Karina Talamantes, one of those in attendance. “It doesn’t matter what job you have—you need whatever equipment is necessary to be safe and to come home to your families.”