Labor group's report blames worker deaths on stalled safety regs

Job-site accidents and occupational illnesses claim the lives of 150 U.S. workers a day, according to a new AFL-CIO report blaming the high death toll on stalled regulations and lax worker safety enforcement.

An estimated 50,000 people die annually from work-related diseases associated with exposure to chemicals and other harmful substances. Many more are killed in workplace accidents, including nearly 4,700 in 2011, according to the report.

“No one should have to sacrifice his or her life or health and safety in order to earn a decent living," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “Yet, elected leaders, business groups and employers have failed to provide adequate health and safety protections for working families.” 

The 200-page report concludes that the Obama administration issued fewer significant workplace protection regulations in its first term than former President George W. Bush did in his second term, when the rule-making process had “virtually ground to a halt."

Rules to crack down on combustible dust inhalation and require employers to track worker illnesses and injuries have stalled at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which reviews certain rules before they are finalized. 

But no proposed worker safety regulation has languished longer than a rule limiting worker exposure to harmful crystalline silica. A common element in the earth’s crust, silica dust is often released during jackhammering or other activities involving heavy machinery at construction sites and shipyards. It has been linked to health problems, including silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and airways diseases.

The proposed rule landed at the OMB more than two years ago, and it remains there.

Business groups argue that current silica standards are sufficient, rendering health risks negligible when followed. And the rule, they say, would be hugely expensive to implement.

A 2011 report from a working group created by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) estimated the new standards would have a total annual economic impact of almost $5.5 billion and cost the businesses upwards of $30 million in lost output over 10 years while eliminating 170,000 jobs.

Industry interests have found an ally in House Republicans, who have echoed those concerns and created an “extremely hostile” regulatory environment since taking control of the chamber in 2010, according to the report.
“Business opposition to regulations intensified and Republicans in Congress launched a major assault on regulations, trying to block the development and issuance of new rules and roll back existing protections, claiming these regulations would kill jobs,” it says.

The report also attributes the death toll, at least in part, to insufficient federal enforcement from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The report found that with its current resources, OSHA would be able to inspect workplaces just "once every 131 years on average."

OSHA penalties, the report says, are too low to deter unscrupulous employers from subjecting workers, particularly immigrants, to unsafe conditions. Penalties for serious federal violations average $2,156. In cases where the violation involved a fatality, the median total penalty was $5,175, according to the report.

The AFL-CIO also found weak criminal penalties, with only 84 worker death cases leading to prosecution since 1970.

OHSA and Labor Department officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.

President Obama’s nominee to serve as the next Labor secretary, if nominated, could ease concerns raised by the report. Union groups, including the AFL-CIO have praised the selection of Thomas Perez to succeed former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, speculating that Perez’s record as an advocate for workers could bode well for proponents of additional regulations.

But much like the rules at the OMB, Perez’s confirmation proceedings have been slowed by delays, as Republicans raise questions about his role at the Justice Department in a whistle-blower protection lawsuit.