Little Rock On Wade’s World, I visited recently with Jonathan Karmel about safety on the job for workers. Karmel is 35-year, Chicago-based, labor side lawyer who after years in the legal trenches for unions, had an epiphany when he realized the continuing dangers faced by workers trying to make a living and sometimes dying while trying. Karmel has written a book, Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace, that he was hoping would be a wakeup call once again to bring this issue to the forefront.
Karmel is right to take up this cause. He notes in the introduction, “One hundred and fifty workers die each day because of their work.” He comes to this figure by adding the daily death numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics of 4836 workers killed annually based on the most recent statistics before he published the book in 2015, adding up to 13 per day, with the federal Center for Disease Control report that estimates that “annually 50,000 deaths attributed to work-related illnesses – an average of 137 each day.” Add the two figures together, and the tragic math totals 150 per day. It’s safer to be a soldier.
It’s not getting better either. It’s getting worse. President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) almost fifty years ago, but the agency is still underfunded, understaffed, and decidedly unloved by business and their backers in both parties. For example, Karmel points out there is one inspection officer for every 59,000 workers. What? Should we worry?
Of course, Karmel advocates updating the regulations, but that’s not happening under the current administration, so let’s look at some of his other suggestions. Two areas would seem to offer some hope. One is more accurate reporting to reduce the under-counting that allows policy makers and business executives to pretend that the “safety first” signs on numerous trucks and industrial gates actually means something. The other is focusing on the state level.
There might be some opportunities in some places. Of course, not Texas which allows companies to not bother with workers’ compensation since 1913 and more recently Oklahoma since 2013, so we’re talking about the other forty-eight states.
Karmel argues for reform in several areas. First, he questions why after accidents workers are given unreliable marijuana tests, even when not driving and in cases where they were clearly not at fault. Secondly, referral doctors should not be under the employ or contract to the company, giving them a conflict of interest. Thirdly, workman’s compensation benefits need to be integrated into the rest of the health system, especially if we had single-payer. Fourthly, the dispute resolution system should be streamlined. Finally, to make sure there is some other enforcement of fairness, attorney’s fees should be allowed fairly.
These moves wouldn’t necessarily be lifesavers, but they would incentivize companies to act more aggressively to protect their workers if the costs they paid, even for deaths on the job, were not so miserly. The rationale of employers, including their argument that there is a “risk premium” in pay that allows workers to accept the risk of injury and death for another buck or two an hour, have to be exposed for the falsehoods they are. Employers, insurers, and governments need to finally value protecting workers’ lives, as if their own lives were at stake without seeing their injuries and deaths as just another cost of doing business.