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AFL-CIO Releases 2021 Workplace Safety Report

June 04, 2021By Niko Pothitakis

Although there’s been progress in reducing work-related injuries and deaths, AFL-CIO’s 2021 workplace safety report has shown that there’s still progress left to make. The introduction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has contributed to safer work environments in the U.S. for the last 50 years, but many workspaces are still far more dangerous than they should be, according to the recent report.

A Recent Stall in Workplace Injury Reduction

According to the AFL-CIO’s 2021 Death On The Job report, the Occupational Safety and Health Act has helped reduce work-related deaths to 3.5 per 100,000 in 2019 from nine per 100,000 in 1991. However, the report also revealed that the death rate has remained at the current level since 2017 under the Trump administration.

The 3.5 per 100,000 rate means that around 275 workers die on a daily basis from dangerous work conditions, while another 95,000 workers die every year from occupational illnesses. These deadly accidents disproportionately occur to people of color in the workplace, according to AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.

Minimal Penalties May Contribute to Steady Worker Death Rates

The current penalties in place for worker deaths are lighter in some states than others, which may help keep worker death rates level. Currently, the maximum federal fine for a worker’s death on the job sits at $12,788, with a maximum jail time of six months. To complicate matters, both federal and state OSHAs have a mere 1,798 inspectors, which is a significantly lower number from 30 years ago, and corporations have fought against implementing new rules for safety in the workplace.

Optimism for the Future of Worker Safety

Despite the ongoing issues present that are putting workers at risk, Shuler remains positive about the future of workplace safety. “We have a pro-worker president, a pro-worker vice president, and a pro-worker majority in Congress,” she stated.

With a new president in office and the world recovering from a devastating pandemic, Shuler and others hope that workplace safety will become a top priority for policymakers. However, corporate opposition is likely to make it difficult for policymakers to overcome the challenges in place, as up-to-date and accurate information around workplace safety and occupational health are limited. In fact, the current data is outdated by at least a year.

In addition to other causes of workplace deaths and illnesses, the AFL-CIO report included a section on COVID-19-related illnesses and deaths, even though businesses aren’t required to report these items. Enforcement became so lax under the Trump administration that it was a challenge to trace sources of the COVID-19 infection and subsequently protect workers against the virus.

Meatpacking plants were among the few types of businesses that kept track of COVID-19 cases in 2020. The four states with the highest number of cases that developed in meatpacking plants were Nebraska with 7,236 cases, Iowa with 6,609, Arkansas with 6,600, and North Carolina with 4,803.

Taking Steps to Combat COVID-19 and Work-Related Injuries and Deaths

In April, OSHA sent a proposal to President Joe Biden’s Office of Management and Budget to implement standards for COVID-19 reporting and enforcement. California recently implemented new standards for protecting employers and employees based on the introduction of the vaccine, but there are currently no federal OSHA standards in place for reporting cases and maintaining proper safety protocols.

Nursing homes are especially in need of standards to create a safer workplace. In the AFL-CIO report, nursing homes in the first week of collected data in June 2020 showed 8,773 cases of COVID-19. By December 23, that number had increased to 22,751.

The healthcare industry also saw the highest number of federal OSHA complaints regarding the coronavirus, with 3,103 complaints total. On the other hand, state OSHAs didn’t collect any data around statewide cases, even though OSHA is present in a majority of states. Despite the complaints, state and federal governments only issued 2,421 and 1,133 violation citations, respectively.

The Need for Improved Reporting and Safety Measures

With a new administration replacing former President Donald Trump and a more pro-worker government in general, many workplace safety advocates are hoping that the future will be brighter for employees across a wide range of industries. While COVID-19 is one of the biggest issues affecting healthcare workers and employees across the nation, the AFL-CIO report makes it clear that many other changes need to take place to make workplaces safer.

If new standards are integrated and corporate opposition to COVID-19 reporting and other measures is mitigated, workers may be able to benefit from safer work environments. In the process, the number of work-related injuries and deaths that appear in future AFL-CIO reports may continue to drop as they had in previous years.