Report | Workplace Health and Safety

Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2021

This 2021 edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect marks the 30th year the AFL-CIO has produced a report on the state of safety and health protections for America’s workers. This report features national and state information on workplace fatalities, injuries, illnesses, the workplace safety inspections, penalties, funding, staffing and public employee coverage under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It also includes information on the state of mine safety and health and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifty years ago on April 28, the OSH Act went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job. More than 627,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the OSH Act. Since that time, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death as chemical plant explosions, major fires, construction collapses, infectious disease outbreaks, workplace assaults and other preventable workplace tragedies continue to occur. Workplace hazards kill and disable more than 100,000 workers each year—5,333 from traumatic injuries and an estimated 95,000 from occupational diseases. The job fatality rate remains stagnant, and job injuries and illnesses continue to be severe undercounts of the real problem.

Download Graphics

Under President Trump, the political landscape and direction of the job safety agencies shifted dramatically from the Obama administration. President Trump ran on a pro-business, deregulatory agenda, promising to cut regulations by 70%. His administration aggressively sought to repeal or weaken many Obama administration rules. Through executive orders, legislative action, and delays and rollbacks in regulations, the Trump administration proposed to cut the job safety budget, rolled back workplace enforcement and weakened workers’ rights to safety protections. For the first two years of the administration, with Republicans in control of Congress, there was little oversight and only a limited ability to block these regulatory attacks and rollbacks. There was little action to address serious hazards like workplace violence, and no accountability or leadership of important agency work such as the infectious disease rulemaking that began in 2009. As a result, important safety and health protections were repealed or weakened.

From 2017 to 2019, job safety and health enforcement at both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) largely had been maintained, but in the fall of 2019, OSHA began reducing the number of inspections involving significant cases and complex hazards, and in the COVID-19 pandemic, was largely absent from workplaces where it has the authority and responsibility to enforce workplace safety laws. At both job safety agencies, the number of inspectors declined significantly; OSHA reached its lowest number of job safety inspectors since the early 1970s, when the agency opened, and MSHA began consolidating coal and metal/nonmetal inspectors into one. Just last year, the number of OSHA inspectors increased for the first time in years, but these figures remain low compared with previous years, and relative to the massive responsibility of the agency.

President Trump proposed cuts in in key worker safety and health programs in the budgets for FY 2018–FY 2021, seeking to cut funding for coal mine enforcement; eliminate OSHA’s worker safety and health training program and the Chemical Safety Board; and slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) job safety research budget by more than 40%. Congress rejected these proposed cuts, providing an OSHA budget that still only amounts to $3.97 to protect each worker.

The election of President Biden was critical to an improved federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to improving working conditions and reducing workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths. On his second day in office, he issued executive orders to launch a dedicated public health response to the pandemic, and to protect workers through job safety COVID-19 protections and enforcement. President Biden has appointed and nominated strong candidates focused on worker protection to lead job safety and health agencies and labor agencies. Immediately upon taking office, he appointed a longtime United Steelworkers (USW) safety and health leader, James Frederick, as acting assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. In April 2021, the Senate confirmed Marty Walsh as secretary of labor. With a background in the construction trades, Walsh is a strong worker advocate who has served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and as Boston mayor. In April 2021, President Biden nominated Doug Parker to be assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health—the head of OSHA. Parker is the current head of the California state OSHA program, served on the Biden-Harris transition team, served in chief policy roles at MSHA and was executive director of Worksafe—a nonprofit organization focused on workplace injury, illness and death prevention. John Howard continues to serve as the head of NIOSH. This is a sharp contrast to President Trump, who nominated corporate officials to head the job safety agencies—people who had records of opposing enforcement and regulatory actions.

The Democratic majority in Congress has improved the environment for occupational safety and health protections. In the 116th Congress, Democrats moved aggressively on a pro-worker agenda, introducing progressive legislation and conducting rigorous oversight of the Trump administration’s policies and programs—but pro-worker legislative progress stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it was difficult or impossible to move emergency public health measures. Now with a Democratic majority in both houses, Congress has focused on oversight of the nation’s COVID-19 response and protection as well as economic relief, and has been able to move on other bills that are critical to saving workers’ lives and livelihoods, such as those on workplace violence and improving workers’ right to organize unions.

Nearly five decades after the passage of the OSH Act, the toll of workplace injury, disease and death remains too high. There is much more work to be done.

Download Graphics