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Who Died on the Job Today and Why?

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Who? Probably a Latino immigrant or someone working for the fossil fuel industry.

 Latino workers remain among the most vulnerable, with a job fatality rate about 9 percent higher than the national rate, partially reflecting Latinos’ prevalence in high-risk, low-wage manual labor jobs. The total number of Latinos killed at work is up slightly, from 707 in 2010 to 804 in 2014; nearly two-thirds of those killed were immigrants.

Among industries, the oil and gas trade seems deadlier than ever: Workers perished at a devastating rate of “15.6 per 100,000 workers, nearly 5 times the national average,” resulting in an unprecedented 144 deaths in 2014. Despite the global decline of the natural-gas market in recent months, Rebecca Reindel of AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department says via e-mail that even if the fracking sector sheds jobs, the occupational dangers might not decline, but instead, rise as bosses tighten budgets: “While there might be fewer workers in the industry due to those changes, experience in safety and health tells us that when businesses need to cut corners for cost, safety and health is often the first and hardest hit. So even with lower employment, safety and health hazards could get worse for workers.”

Why? Because legal and regulatory enforcement is so lax that there’s no good reason for employers to care about worker safety.

 Yet, even when regulators respond swiftly, employers have little to fear: In fiscal year 2015, the average penalty for a federal OSHA violation was $2,148, and just $1,317 for a state-level violation. A dead worker doesn’t cost much more: The median penalty for a lethal federal violation was $7,000. And while tens of millions have been injured or killed at work since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, the study notes that “only 89 cases have been prosecuted under the act, with defendants serving a total of 110 months in jail. During this time, there were more than 395,000 workplace fatalities…about 20% of which were investigated by federal OSHA.” Meanwhile, the report notes, under another beleaguered federal regulatory protection, the Environmental Protection Act, fiscal year 2015 alone saw “185 defendants charged, resulting in 129 years of jail time and $200 million in fines and restitution.”

Although there have been a few high-profile criminal prosecutions for worker deaths, sometimes under other federal or state statutes, generally corporate impunity shields even the most scandalized bosses (see Massey Coal executive Don Blankenship’s tiny misdemeanor conviction last year for his role in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster). Workers’ lives are cheap, so the ultimate economic burden of unsafe jobs is drastically socialized onto the public, as occupational injury and illness costs the country an estimated “$250 billion to $370 billion a year.”

It is true that workplace fatalities have declined over the years. But this is more about the offshoring of dangerous labor to the world’s poor as it is employers caring about workplace safety. In fact, a far more telling statistic would be workplace deaths in products made by and for American companies than the number of workers specifically who die in the United States. In a fully globalized economy, that really matters more.

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