In 2016, we are reflecting on where we have come and where we are going. It is the 45th anniversary of the opening of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; the 25th year AFL-CIO has produced the Death on the Job report; and an election year. OSHA actually opened its doors 45 years ago on April 28, the date we now honor as Workers Memorial Day every year.
The overall worker fatality rate and injury rate have decreased significantly since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed by President Richard Nixon, showing that OSHA regulations and enforcement, worker and union activism, and employer efforts reduce work-related injuries and illnesses. The creation of OSHA promised working people the right to provide for their families and return home alive, in one piece and not burdened with lifelong illness.
But is that promise being fulfilled?
Nearly 5,000 workers each year still don’t return home at the end of the work day. Another 50,000–100,000 workers carry home with them work-related diseases that lead to death. Millions more take home injuries that haunt them for the rest of their lives.
OSHA has broad responsibility to prevent these things from happening but very limited resources. The agency oversees prevention of fires, falls, electrocutions and crushing. It oversees prevention of serious diseases from chemicals, infections and toxic dust. It ensures working people are not retaliated against for reporting unsafe working conditions and injuries. But with its state partners, there are fewer than 2,000 inspectors nationwide to ensure the safety and health of 140 million workers at nearly 8 million workplaces.
Since its inception, OSHA resources have declined: Federal OSHA has 300 fewer inspectors than in 1975, even though employment has nearly doubled. It would now take federal OSHA 145 years to inspect each workplace, compared with 84 years in 1992. Without inspections, there is no oversight for workplace conditions and no accountability for employers who violate the law.
Funding for workplace safety and health takes low priority. The U.S. government spends less than $4 protecting each worker from safety and health hazards on the job. OSHA’s measly budget of $553 million is constantly under attack, yet the federal government spends nearly $3 billion per year to protect fish and wildlife; $8 billion to protect the environment; $156 billion to make sure the food we eat is safe; and $585 billion on national defense. The U.S. government recently spent $245 billion to bail out banks and other financial institutions.
Workers need and deserve more safety and health protection. OSHA needs additional resources. As America’s unions, we will continue to fight from every plant, farm, hospital, construction site and store to the national level until the promise of safe jobs for all workers is achieved.
Read more about Death on the Job.