The Decline of Workplace Safety

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I probably should’ve linked to this a few days ago, but Jordan Barab had an outstanding post on Worker’s Memorial Day about the dismal state of workplace safety standards in the United States. Workplace deaths have risen to 6,000 a year—that’s 15 every day; serious injuries are going underreported; negligent employers are getting off lightly; and the Bush administration continues to gut MSHA and OSHA, the two agencies responsible for workplace safety. This part is particularly damning:

Although rarely used, OSHA has the ability to criminally prosecute employers when a willful violation of a standard leads to the death of a worker. (“Willful” means violations in which the employer knew that workers’ lives were being put at risk.)

OSHA was embarrassed in 2003 by a New York Times investigation that revealed that from 1982 to 2002, OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of more than 1200 cases where a worker was killed due to a willful violation of an OSHA standard. At least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted. Fewer than 20 employers have ever gone to jail despite well over a thousand cases involving work deaths that involve “willful” OSHA violations over the past twenty years.

Indeed, most of the time OSHA merely chooses to slap fines on willfully negligent employers; but the maximum fine only comes to $70,000 (and fines rarely reach even that)—hardly enough to persuade billion-dollar businesses to just think a bit harder about worker safety. Barab notes that state and local prosecutors have tried to exact stricter punishments, but, of course, unless the federal government steps in, businesses will frequently be able to move to whatever part of the country has the laxest standards and the gentlest juries. But, of course, the federal government won’t step in so long as a wholly-owned subsidiary of big agribusiness, etc., is sitting in the White House.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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