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Workplace deaths up slightly in 2011

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This aerial photo shows the remains of a emergency responders vehicle, top right, and a fertilizer plant destroyed by an April 18 explosion in West, Texas.

Tony Gutierrez/AP

As investigators unravel what caused a Texas fertilizer plant explosion last week that killed 14, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that 4,693 workers died on the job in 2011, three more than in 2010.

The fatal injury rate for 2011, the most recent year with complete data, was 3.5 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. That is down slightly from 2010.

According to the BLS, 1,937 workers died in transportation incidents; 710 through “contact with objects and equipment”; 681 from “falls, slips [and] trips”; and 419 from “exposure to harmful substances or environments.”

“The Texas plant explosion is the kind of catastrophe that really grabs the public’s attention,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an umbrella organization for a network of nonprofit groups around the country. “But that’s about the same number of people who die every day in the U.S., in ways that are much quieter and hidden from public view.”

On average, 13 workers a day are killed on the job in the United States and many more are injured. On April 17, the same day the fertilizer plant blew up in West, Texas, a dozen contract workers  were injured when a fire broke out at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont, about 300 miles to the southeast; seven suffered severe burns.

This year, for the first time, the BLS fatality report has a separate category for contract workers, who may not be afforded the same protections as regular employees. Five hundred forty-two died in 2011, the bureau found, accounting for 12 percent of all fatal injuries. Texas had the highest number of contractor deaths – 56 – followed by Florida (51) and California (42).

“Looking through the BLS data, you see some really simple, easily preventable causes of death: people falling off roofs, people dying in trench cave-ins, people falling off ladders, people dying in confined spaces,” O’Connor said. “The total death toll is far greater than what we see from a handful of catastrophic incidents. It seems that the public just sort of accepts that as a risk of going to work.

“We believe people shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get a job.”

Stephanie Moulton, a 25-year-old social worker at a Massachusetts group home, died at the hands of a schizophrenic client on Jan. 20, 2011. She was among 468 workplace homicide victims that year, according to the BLS.

Moulton’s death motivated her mother, Kim Flynn of Peabody, Mass., to press for a state law that would require mental health facilities to provide “panic buttons” to workers. In a report this week, O’Connor’s group recommends that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue a sweeping injury and illness prevention standard that would require employers to identify and address hazards, including the potential for violence.

In Flynn’s view, both the owner of the home in which her daughter worked and OSHA – which proposed a $7,000 fine in the case – “dropped the ball.”

The BLS data release comes three days before Workers Memorial Day, a union-sponsored event honoring those who die on the job.

“Many job hazards are unregulated and uncontrolled,” says the AFL-CIO. “Some employers cut corners and violate the law, putting workers in serious danger and costing lives. Workers who report job hazards or job injuries are fired or disciplined. Employers contract out dangerous work to try to avoid responsibility.”

OSHA, records show, had not inspected the now-demolished Texas fertilizer plant since 1985. “OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years,” the AFL-CIO said in its 2012 “Death on the Job” report.

As they have in the past, Democrats in Congress introduced legislation this year to strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, whose criminal and civil penalties for employer misconduct are considered lenient by critics.

Under the act, an employer whose willful disregard for the law leads to a worker death faces at most a misdemeanor charge, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail. Such cases are rarely prosecuted. The maximum fine for a “serious” violation, which could lead to death or serious injury, is $7,000.

Other laws, in contrast, are far stricter. Last month, the owner of a bio-diesel fuel company was sentenced to 188 months in prison – 15½ years – fined $175,000 and ordered to pay almost $55 million in restitution after pleading guilty to wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements to the Environmental Protection Agency in violation of the Clean Air Act.

“The fact remains that penalties for harming workers are often the cost of doing business for some employers, if they get inspected at all,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in a statement last week. “Congress needs to work together to increase these outdated penalties and give real teeth to the law so that workers and communities can remain safe while trying to make a living.”