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1 US Worker Dies on the Job Every 96 Minutes, Latest Data Shows

New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics documents a significant jump in on the job deaths in the US.

Migrant workers weed lettuce seed plants at an organic produce farm on June 21, 2006, near Fresno, California.

Current workplace fatality figures, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in December 2023, show that on-the-job deaths in the United States have jumped significantly, reaching their highest level in ten years.

The results, obtained as part of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), analyzed information collected over the course of 2022 — and documented a notable 5.7 percent increase in workplace deaths in the U.S. during the relevant 2021-2022 census period.

The toll represented a 10-year high for fatal work injuries. Nearly 6,000 U.S. workers died on the job — and, another BLS survey found, a startling total of 2.8 million were injured or sickened.

Worker safety in the U.S., while comparing favorably to industrializing postcolonial states, is not commensurate with the nation’s wealth, nor with the standards of other developed capitalist countries. The grim results of 2022 are the consequences of collapsing regulatory oversight and the degradation of worker power in the U.S. — two hallmarks of the neoliberal era and its consolidated corporate dominance.

A Closer Look at the Numbers

The BLS report on the CFOI findings put its tally in disturbing perspective: The 5.7 percent mortality increase means that, on average, a U.S. worker was killed at work every 96 minutes in 2022. The census also indicated that Black and Latiné workers died on the job at disproportionate rates. Black workers, for instance, were far more likely to be the victims of a homicide during the workday, especially those employed in retail; the same was true of women in general. Of Latiné employees, over half of the recorded deaths were of foreign-born workers.

These are marked racial disparities. Per the BLS release, workplace deaths of people of color were distinctly higher than the average rate of 3.7 per 100,000 full-time workers, reaching 4.2 for Black workers and 4.6 for Latiné workers. Many of the latter work in agriculture — and out of all occupations, farming, fishing and forestry “had the highest fatality rate” of “23.5 fatalities per 100,000” full-time workers, which is also “up from 20.0 in 2021.”

Agriculture may be the deadliest occupation, but across sectors, the CFOI found that “transportation incidents” were the most common cause of death, making up nearly 40 percent of all workplace fatalities: another perhaps less than surprising statistic, given the deadliness of U.S. car culture to workers and everyone else besides.

Tracey Cekada is chairperson and professor of the Safety Sciences Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). Reached by Truthout, Cekada pointed out an effect particular to the contingent of immigrant employees. “Fatalities among foreign-born Hispanic or Latino workers need to be addressed, as we are seeing a growing number of Spanish-speaking employees enter the workforce. These communication barriers put workers at risk,” she said.

The construction industry accounted for an outsized percentage of the deaths of foreign-born workers, with 316 out of the 792 total that year. It’s not hard to imagine that communication lapses between workers on an active construction site could feasibly create dangerous situations.

On average, a U.S. worker was killed at work every 96 minutes in 2022.

Part of Cekada’s work at the IUP involves addressing “ways to improve communication [in organizations] between groups where English is not their primary language.” The Safety Sciences Department offers a Spanish language certificate to “help safety professionals communicate with a diverse workforce.” Cekada and the Safety Sciences Department at IUP also offer a unique, and free, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Consultation program. Fully independent of the agency itself, the program provides evaluations and assistance to businesses in understanding and meeting compliance standards.

Longtime Watchdogs

OSHA, since its instantiation in a 1970, has invariably been the nation’s embattled watchdog, looking out for worker safety in on the job matters of life and death.

As a leading voice in consumer safety and workers’ rights firebrand for decades, a politician with multiple runs for the presidency, and a tireless advocate of too many ambitious and victorious campaigns to list, Ralph Nader’s name is practically synonymous with standing up to dangerous corporate profiteering and corner-cutting. Doubtless, one of his standout legacies is his intensive lobbying for OSHA’s initial establishment. And, ever-vigilant against regulatory capture and corporate intrusion of the variety that has consumed the Democratic Party, he’s also one of OSHA’s perennial critics. (Nader recently charged that the agency has devolved into a “consultancy firm.”)

Truthout spoke with Nader to get his thoughts on the 2022 fatality increase, and the policy dynamics and regulatory lapses that heighten occupational risks for workers. Nader first shared his account of the advent of OSHA in 1970, telling Truthout that, “We got it through, but the penalties were trivial, the criminal sanctions were almost nonexistent. However, it replaced a void — the federal government was doing nothing. The state governments were spending about 10 cents per worker on occupational safety, which means they were doing almost nothing. So, the workers were unprotected — day after day, week after week, from both trauma and disease.”

In other words, OSHA was only robust in comparison to the state of abject failure that preceded it. Nader told Truthout that on some measures, that remains the case to this day. The agency is eternally underfunded and suffered particularly devastating cuts under former President Donald Trump.

“We thought the labor unions would muscle in some stronger amendments in the ‘70s. Well, they didn’t do that. And it was hard to get most of the unions behind OSHA to begin with…. Then the Reagan years came, and then it was worse and worse,” Nader explained to Truthout. “The basic problem is, it’s too small a budget, it’s too weak an authority, and there’s too few inspectors and prosecutors. Otherwise, it’s great.”

He also points out another complicating factor: the role of U.S. worker’s compensation laws, “which are state-based and very weak — in some southern states, unbelievably weak — in terms of what workers get for disability per month,” creating a “straitjacket” for workers. Current policy requires that to accept compensation, workers must release the company from liability, precluding bigger judgments in the courts.

“What the worker’s comp does is they block most potential litigation for product dangers and factories and so on under the tort laws,” Nader continued. “It’s very hard to circumvent the worker’s comp range of control and go to the tort system, where you can get punitive damages and much more compensatory damages.”

Daily Catastrophes of the Working Class

Of course, the vast majority of job accidents are not fatal — though they can certainly still inflict devastation on lives, families and livelihoods. Additional data collected and analyzed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities (IIF) program lends insight into nonfatal accidents, incidents and work-related illnesses in the U.S.

Shortly before the CFOI findings were released, the IIF program also announced the results of a more comprehensive measure called the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII). The SOII tracks employer-reported injury and illness cases, of which the survey recorded 2.8 million in 2022. This total, like the CFOI findings, reflected an increase over 2021, in this case of 7.5 percent. (Nader told Truthout that many, many more accidents remain invisible — especially because, in a conflict of interest, it’s employers who are trusted to report them.)

An important caveat is that the CFOI “does not report any illness related information, including COVID-19,” he said. Accordingly, the 5.7 percent fatality rate increase described above is independent of COVID. However, the separate SFOI measure, as an overall illness and injury metric assessed by the IIF, does include COVID deaths, accounting for a significant percentage of the reported 7.5 percent increase.

There are quite a lot of confounding variables in play here, but the 7.5 percent uptick in illness and injury could be interpreted to mean that the nation is seeing both a worsening of working conditions that contribute to typical on the job injuries and additional ongoing failures in pandemic protections, as the public tires of the pandemic and the state abandons practically every control measure. Whatever the precise factors, according to the BLS press release, conditions have precipitated an “increase in illnesses [that has been] driven by the rise in respiratory illness cases, up 35.4 percent to 365,000 cases in 2022.”

The mechanisms of global capital exact a bitter toll on those who work for pittances in its dark mills and abattoirs.

Nicholas Freudenberg is a distinguished professor of public health at City University of New York School of Public Health. Freudenberg is an expert in public health and food systems and socioeconomic disparity; his latest book is At What Cost: Modern Capitalism and the Future of Health. In an interview with Truthout, Freudenberg highlighted a number of dynamic factors that play a role in worker safety.

The complex interactions of capital’s prerogatives and social conditions have made for a situation to the detriment of workers in, to use Freudenberg’s example, the food sector. He flagged multiple ongoing processes. For one, the composition of the workforce has changed with the “growing use of contingent labor — part-time or temporary workers, often immigrants, who lack the protection of regular employees,” Freudenberg commented to Truthout. “Few contingent workers are represented by unions, and employers often take advantage of their vulnerability.” Further, the workforce in the food sector “reflects the racial patterning seen in many sectors of the U.S. economy” — i.e. people of color, “recent immigrants, and women are overrepresented” in the lowest-paid, often more dangerous jobs.

Meanwhile, food company monopolization creates “larger food companies with bigger budgets to fight regulations and resist government oversight of compliance with labor and health and safety laws,” Freudenberg added. That dynamic is double-sided; as corporations amass power, regulators face “cutbacks in funding for federals, state and local enforcement of worker health and safety laws, often at the behest of conservative politicians and their business supporters.”

In these ways, the food sector is microcosmic of other segments of U.S. job markets: retail, agriculture, child care, elder care, and many more. The mechanisms that Freudenberg related are, of course, only a few out of the infinitude of variables that impact influence worker death rates in any given year.

Relative Rankings

Placing things in perspective, Freudenberg also highlighted a number of rigorous, peer-reviewed academic studies, including a 2020 publication that appeared in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. This comprehensive research effort set out to measure the global impact of occupational health risks, taking 2016 as the year of analysis. In that year alone, job hazards resulted in 1.53 million deaths worldwide, and the loss of 76.1 million disability-adjusted life years. It is tragically evident that the mechanisms of global capital exact a bitter toll on those who work for pittances in its dark mills and abattoirs.

Again, worker death rates in the U.S. do compare quite favorably to many underdeveloped countries still undergoing industrialization and demographic transition. However, that’s hardly an illuminating juxtaposition. It’s only logical that the better point of comparison would be a per capita comparison to other highly developed capitalist countries — and on that scale, the U.S. scores dismally indeed.

As data analysis by consultant group Arinite Health and Safety indicates, U.S. worker safety rates below that of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Greenland, much of Europe, and other nations with nowhere near the riches and power of the U.S., still world hegemon even as it enters its imperial decline. A particularly striking fact can be found in a 2018 article in Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, which bore the headline: “American workplaces are 900% more deadly than British ones.”

Using the updated numbers from 2022 would make that figure even starker. Other academic work that Freudenberg cited on the ramifications of COVID for six developed nations’ workforces found that U.S. workers suffered some of the most grievous impacts in several categories, among them income loss, work hour reductions, levels of “informal” (gig) employment and difficulties paying normal expenses.

It’s not hard to surmise that certain characteristics of the modern neoliberal U.S. might exacerbate these types of daily concerns for working people: particularly its threadbare welfare state; a lack of worker protections, child care, time off, and various other supports; and the absence of universal health care, to say nothing of the disastrously bungled pandemic response and the countless other risks and indignities to which the working class is regularly subjected. The procession of these conditions is tightly linked to the diminution of worker power and regulatory oversight.

As Nader says, “One reason Western Europe is ahead is that they have stronger unions, and more democratic unions — so they get the demands from the rank and file.” Freudenberg concurred, telling Truthout that, “The low rates of unionization in food industry also contribute to [workers’] lack of political power to shape their pay and working conditions.”

Avoidable Losses

The U.S. is a country in which quite a few pillars of a functioning society, of a humane national community, have been knocked out at the behest of corporations and the rich. When workers’ needs, rights or safety, come into conflict with the prerogatives of capital, it’s not often surprising which of the two factions emerges as the victor. But the resulting social decay endangers all, as profiteering chips away at every restraint on capital’s violence, courting disaster with every blow.

Nader also made a point to decry the neoliberal turn of the Democratic Party, which has aided and abetted much of capital’s class offensive and abdicated whatever remained of its historical commitments to labor and the New Deal.

“What’s a disgrace is that the Democratic Party — they never make it an issue,” Nader told Truthout. “And the unions automatically endorse the Democrats without any conditions! When was the last time the Democrats made occupational health a campaign issue? They can’t even make a campaign issue of a $15 minimum wage, they’re so indentured to corporate PACs and other commercial campaign money.”

“This is a country that grossly, by comparison with Western countries, grossly disrespects the lives and health of its workers.”

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