by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is the latest installment of the AFL-CIO’s annual report on workplace fatalities and injuries. Titled “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect,” it marks the 32nd year the organization has published annual statistics on workplace deaths.
According to the report, in 1992, there were 6,217 workplace fatalities in the United States. The good news is that by 2021, the annual figure had dropped to 5,190, doubly impressive given that the U.S. workforce grew substantially over that period of time. The 1992 figure represents 5.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, and in 2021, that had dropped to 3.6 (though we must acknowledge that pandemic shutdowns wreaked havoc with the workforce, so we may not want to look at 2020–2022 as indicative of where things will be over the next few years).
If we peel back the covers and look deeper into the statistics, however, we find a huge amount of variance behind that simple statistic: Some industries and jobs have much higher or lower fatality rates. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (and cited in the AFL-CIO report), the industries where the most fatalities occur are construction, transportation, and warehousing — together comprising almost 40% of the total workplace fatalities in 2021. But in part the numbers are so high because those industries are so large: While their fatality rates (9.4 deaths per 100,000 workers for construction, 14.5 for transportation and warehousing) are well above the average (3.6) for all industries, neither industry has the highest fatality rate. That dubious honor goes to “agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting,” which saw 19.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers. And rounding out the top four are mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (14.2). On the flip side, the industries with the lowest fatality rates (unsurprisingly) are educational and health services (0.7), financial activities (0.9), information (1.5), and retail (1.9).
Within a given industry, of course, there are individuals performing a variety of jobs, some more dangerous than others. The report lists the occupations with the highest fatality rates. Standing out at the top are logging workers (82.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers) and fishing and hunting workers (75.2). Not too far behind are roofers (59.0) and aircraft pilots and flight engineers (48.1).
Also not surprisingly, there are disparities in fatality rates by gender, age, and race/ethnicity of workers, largely attributable to who tends to get hired to do specific jobs. For Black workers, the fatality rate in 2021 was 4.0 deaths per 100,000 workers; for Latino/Latina workers it was 4.5. Both of those numbers have increased in recent years, bucking the long downward trend for workplace fatalities overall. For older workers, the numbers are even worse: The fatality rate for workers over age 65 was 8.4 per 100,000.
Because each of the 50 states has its own unique mix of industries, the workplace fatality rate also varies for each. Wyoming has the highest rate at 10.4; North Dakota, Montana, and Louisiana are not far behind. On the other hand, Washington is tied with Arizona for third-safest state, with a workplace fatality rate of 2.1; our state certainly has its share of dangerous logging, manufacturing, agricultural, and transportation jobs, but it also has a large IT sector that balances it out.
The other factors that have a big effect on workplace safety are regulations and enforcement. At the federal level, workplace safety is regulated and enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA. But the federal law that enables OSHA also allows individual states to decide whether to run their own state-level OSHA or leave it up to the feds. As the AFL-CIO report points out, the federal OSHA has been chronically understaffed and underfunded for many years; in 2021, it had one inspector for about every 77,000 workers, and a paltry budget of approximately $3.99 per worker. And yet, many states — often red ones — still leave the job to the federal agency, perhaps knowing enforcement will be reliably lax due to sheer lack of resources. Other states, including Washington, have, in fact, decided to staff up their own OSHA; ours has 121 inspectors of its own (plus four federal ones).
One amusing (though also sad) statistic in the report is the number of years it would take for the available OSHA inspectors in each state to inspect every workplace once. In Washington, it would take 58 years; that sounds like a high number, but it’s the second-best number in the nation (after Alaska at 53 years). For Arkansas, Arizona, and South Carolina, it would take over 400 years.
There is a wealth of other data in the report, including data on workplace injuries, and the costs of fatalities and injuries to workers and their families, to employers, and to workforce productivity. The report also includes detailed breakdowns of statistics for each state. Here in Washington, the news is not all good: While the fatality rate is comparatively low and enforcement is comparatively high, our workplace injury and illness rate is actually higher than the national average.
In total, the report is a mixed bag. On one hand, we can celebrate that injury and fatality rates are much lower today than they were 30 years ago — which in turn was great progress from a century ago. On the other hand, over 5,000 workers still die every year in the United States, and the last decade has seen uneven progress in further improving workplace safety. While there are some jobs that will always and inherently be more dangerous, American workers deserve to have workplaces that are made as safe as they can possibly be.
Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2023
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
📸 Featured image by Bannafarsai_Stock/Shutterstock.com.
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