Nearly 5,000 laborers died on the job in 2020, according to a new report from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), with Latino and Black workers having the highest fatality rates.
Despite the U.S. making strides in keeping workers safe since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act more than 50 years ago, there are still too few federal resources to adequately protect and monitor laborers moving forward, the AFL-CIO argued in the latest edition of its annual “Death on the Job” report, released Tuesday. Meanwhile, families of workers are paying the price.
Fewer than 2,000 inspectors oversaw 10.4 million workplaces in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) jurisdiction during fiscal year 2021, according to the AFL-CIO report, with the number of federal inspectors not much improved since reaching an all-time low in 2019. OSHA inspections still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the AFL-CIO, which called on employers to improve conditions as well.
“Worker injuries and deaths are still far too common,” Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO, said in a press conference Tuesday. “Every single day, 340 people die because of hazardous working conditions.”
In 2020, 4,764 workers died from injuries on the job, according to the AFL-CIO report. While that was down from 2019, when 5,333 such deaths were logged, that number does not include deaths from occupational illnesses or COVID-19.
Additionally, people might not have been working in traditional workplaces for much of 2020 due to lockdowns and COVID-19 mitigation efforts, said Rebecca Reindel, the health and safety director at AFL-CIO.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is committed to doing everything in its power to protect all workers from the hazards they face on the job,” a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson said in a statement. “We also appreciate and embrace innovative ideas from our external stakeholders on how to best address the health and safety needs of workers today and to prepare for the challenges ahead. We look forward to reading the report and will continue to incorporate the latest information and data to inform our work.”
The fatality rate for Latino workers also increased to 4.5 per 100,000 workers in 2020, according to AFL-CIO, representing a 15% increase over the past decade even though the number of Latino worker deaths, at 1,072, was slightly lower than 2019’s 1,088 fatalities.
“Hispanic and Latino workers were the only publishable race and ethnicity group whose fatal injury rate rose, from 4.2 fatal work injuries per 100,000 full-time workers in 2019 to 4.5 in 2020,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in a March article. “The fatal injury rates for White (non-Hispanic), Asian (non-Hispanic), and Black or African-American (non-Hispanic) workers all dropped from 2019 to 2020.”
The Black worker fatality rate, at 3.5 per 100,000 workers, continues to be greater than the national average, the AFL-CIO said in its report.
Many of those affected were immigrants, according to the AFL-CIO, a federation of unions representing 12.5 million workers. In general, low-wage workers — who, due to labor-market discrimination and policy choices throughout history, are more likely to be Latino and Black — are also injured on the job at a disproportionate rate, according to a 2015 OSHA report.
Agriculture and warehousing were especially dangerous for workers in 2020, the report noted.
States with the highest fatality rates included Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and West Virginia.
Workers in the most perilous industries tend to be non-unionized, Reindel said.
But there have been high-profile efforts to organize warehouse workers during the pandemic — including at an Amazon
facility in Staten Island that this month became the company’s first location to vote to unionize. Isaiah Thomas, a fulfillment center worker for Amazon in Bessemer, Ala., said Tuesday that a union would give workers at their facility a greater voice.
There have been two union votes at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, with the most recent being too close to call. The first election, in 2021, was set aside by the National Labor Relations Board after claims that the company violated labor law, allowing a do-over.
Amazon at the time denied intimidating anyone.
“Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace,” the company said in an April 2021 statement. “We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”
Since the second election, both Amazon and union organizers have contested ballots, and the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union has argued that Amazon again interfered with its ability to carry out a free election, according to AL.com.
Though Amazon employed 33% of U.S. warehouse workers last year, it accounted for nearly half of all serious injuries experienced by warehouse workers during that time, according to a recent report. A spokeswoman for the company attributed that increase in worker injuries to a jump in hirings, noting that when comparing 2021 to 2019, injuries declined.
“We should not have to risk death or injury just to make a living,” Thomas said. “All of us workers deserve better.”