This 2022 edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect marks the 31st year the AFL-CIO has produced a report on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers. This report features national and state information on workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses, as well as the workplace safety inspections, penalties, funding, staffing and public employee coverage under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It also includes information on the state of mine safety and health and the state of worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fifty-one years ago on April 28, the OSH Act went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job. More than 647,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the OSH Act.¹ Since that time, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But 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. Workplace hazards kill and disable approximately 125,000 workers each year—4,764 from traumatic injuries, and an estimated 120,000 from occupational diseases. Job injury and illness numbers continue to be severe undercounts of the real problem.
Over the years, our progress has become more challenging as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. Big Business and many Republicans have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections. They are attempting to shift employers’ responsibility to maintain a safe workplace to individual worker behavior, and undermine the core responsibilities of workplace safety agencies.
The Trump administration rolled back progress, attacking longstanding workplace safety protections—targeting job safety rules on beryllium, mine safety examinations and injury reporting, and cutting agency budgets and staff—and attempted to dismantle the systems for future protections. They totally failed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the disparities of those most affected by workplace infection.
In the fall of 2019, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began reducing the number of inspections involving significant cases and complex health hazards, a policy that is still in place today. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA was largely absent from workplaces where it has the authority and responsibility to enforce workplace safety laws. While the number of inspectors and inspections have improved in FY 2021, there is much more progress to be made to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels. The COVID-19 pandemic also brought to light the weaknesses in federal oversight of state OSHA plans. Congress continues to fund job safety at stagnant levels, allowing an OSHA budget that still only amounts to $4.37 to protect each worker covered by the OSH Act.
While progress is slow, the Biden administration has taken important steps to protect workers, prioritizing worker protections on its regulatory agenda, taking steps on targeted enforcement efforts on urgent hazards, and filling staff and leadership vacancies. It also launched broad efforts on worker empowerment and targeting workplace inequities.
President Joe Biden has appointed and nominated strong candidates focused on worker protection to lead job safety and health agencies and labor agencies. Immediately upon taking office, he appointed a longtime United Steelworkers (USW) safety and health leader, James Frederick, as acting assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. In April 2021, the Senate confirmed Marty Walsh, the Boston mayor from the construction trades unions, as secretary of labor. In April 2021, Biden nominated Doug Parker to be assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health—the head of OSHA—and he was confirmed Oct. 25, 2021.
Parker served as the California OSHA chief, on the Biden-Harris transition team, in chief policy roles at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and was executive director of Worksafe—a nonprofit organization focused on workplace injury, illness and death prevention. John Howard continues to serve as the head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This is a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump, who nominated corporate officials to head the job safety agencies— people who had records of opposing enforcement and regulatory actions, and who often lacked safety experience. Over the years, the progress has become more challenging as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. Big Business and many Republicans have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections. They are attempting to shift employers’ responsibilities to provide safe jobs to individual workers, and undermine the core responsibilities of workplace safety agencies.
The nation must renew its commitment to protecting workers from job injury, disease and death, and make this a high priority. Employers must meet their responsibilities to protect workers and be held accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America’s workers be fulfilled. There is much more work to be done to ensure the fundamental right to a safe job is a reality for all. The job fatality rate was 3.4 per 100,000 workers. Latino and Black workers remain at greater risk of dying on the job than all workers.