fresh voices from the front lines of change







Every day, most of us go to work and then come home. Next day: Rinse, repeat.

But some U.S. workers go to work and never come home.

In April 2005, Donald Wilcher Smith was one of them. The 22-year-old central Texas man was electrocuted at the Sanderson Farms processing plant.

This week, his father, Donald Coit Smith, described what it’s like to lose his son.

I do not possess the capacity to adequately describe the horror that possesses my soul from my son’s death. To lose him caused me to reflect on faith in my God.

He testified Tuesday before a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in a hearing on “When a Worker is Killed: Do OSHA Penalties Enhance Workplace Safety?”

Smith, a workplace inspector for a polyurethane manufacturer who worked regularly with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), said his encounters with OSHA as an employer were far different from his dealings with them as a parent.

I have been met with resistance at virtually every corner I’ve had to turn. It started with the inspection of the death facility and getting information on the why and how of my son’s death. I’m not talking about the fact that he was electrocuted…that was obvious. But how could this have happened? And why weren’t the events that led up to his death avoided? In my study of the situation from the information I’ve obtained, the root problems that surfaced were really simple and stood out….There was no commitment. There was no deterrent.

Earlier this week, we commemorated Workers Memorial Day, as we have since 1989. April 28 was chosen because it is the anniversary of OSHA. Every year, people in hundreds of communities and at worksites recognize workers who have been killed or injured on the job. Trade unionists around the world now mark April 28 as an International Day of Mourning.

This week, we at the AFL-CIO also released our annual Death on the Job report, where cold data underlies the painful tragedies of those like Donald Wilcher Smith. The report is a powerful witness to the progress and the slippage in maintaining safe and healthy workplaces throughout the nation, and points out how federal safety agencies must improve.

Such constant vigilance is needed: The number of workplace fatalities increased between 2005 and 2006, worsening from 5,734 workplace deaths to 5,840. That means each day in 2006, 16 workers were fatally injured and more than 11,200 workers injured or made ill. Again, that’s each day. These data (2006 stats are the latest available) do not include deaths from occupational diseases.

Some 29 states saw a rise in either the rate or number of fatalities between 2005 and 2006. Death on Job, which in large part compiles federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, also breaks down the data by state:

Alaska led the country with the highest fatality rate (13.8 per 100,000), followed by Wyoming (12.9), West Virginia (10.2), Montana (9.2), South Dakota (8.8) and North Dakota (8.7). The lowest state fatality rate (1.8 per 100,000) was reported in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, followed by New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts (2.1), and New York (2.6).

The number of Hispanic workers killed on the job continues to worsen—990 in 2006, the highest-ever number reported since the BLS began keeping such reports. Nearly all those deaths happened at construction sites.

OSHA was created in 1970, after years of effort by unions and our allies. Death on the Job estimates 369,000 lives have been saved since then. Yet the agency suffers from many flaws that—surprise!—have snowballed under the Bush administration.

First, all workers aren’t covered under OSHA—more than 8.5 million U.S. employees are not. And if your industry is covered, chances are an OSHA inspector will never see the inside of your workplace in your lifetime: OSHA has the capacity and resources to inspect workplaces on average once every 92 years.

Further, OSHA’s penalties have little or no deterrent effect on employers. The cost of killing a worker? Around $6,000—the national average penalty assessed against companies in fatality cases for FY 2003–2006.

As part of the Senate Committee hearing this week, Sen. Edward Kennedy released a report that documents, case by painful case, the extent to which OSHA has failed to punish safety violations that kill workers. As the report notes:

OSHA supervisors reduce penalties even more for employers who contest the penalty––employers who do so can get a “contest discount” of 300 percent.

Among the many egregious examples the report includes is one from October 2006, when a worker was killed at a Martin Block Co. worksite in Jackson, Ohio.

The [OSHA] inspector assessed one willful citation, 15 serious citations and one other than serious citation and assessed total penalties of $27,600. After the employer contested the willful citation, OSHA deleted one serious citation and reduced total penalties by half to $13,800…no follow up or “related site” inspection was conducted.

For Bush’s OSHA, congressional hearings on U.S. workers killed on the job is just election-year posturing. In response the hearing, OSHA sent the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this statement:

Election-year political theatre cannot mask the truth that under this administration, workplace illness, injury and fatality rates are the lowest in OSHA’s history. This administration’s pro-worker safety record is an inconvenient truth for the AFL-CIO and their partisan allies who are peddling dishonest political attacks—masquerading as ‘reports’—to the media.”

The statement neglected to mention the Death on the Job report is based on government data.

Since its establishment 38 years ago, OSHA has prosecuted only 68 cases—during a time when 341,000 workplace fatalities occurred. And prison time for the few who get it is minimal: In the criminal context, the law permits a maximum prison sentence of six months for willfully violating a safety standard or regulation which leads to the death of a worker. By contrast, the maximum sentence for mail fraud is 30 years.

Testifying before the Senate Committee, Donald Coit Smith read aloud OSHA’s mission: “to assure the safety and health of America’s workers…” and went on:

Let’s look at the word “assure” closely. Webster’s says it is to “make certain.”
Senators, OSHA doesn’t make certain of anything from what I’ve been through. If I had to change one thing that could make a profound difference in OSHA, it would be to make fines and punishment so severe that employers would tremble at the thought of violating the code.

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