According to a new report released by the AFL-CIO, Minnesota had the 8th lowest (and 42nd highest) rate of workplace deaths in 2019. This analysis, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that 80 working Minnesotans lost their lives due to on-the-job injuries, resulting in 2.6 deaths per hundred thousand workers.
Nationally in 2019, 5,333 working people were killed on the job and an estimated 90,000 died from occupational diseases. Each and every day, on average, 275 U.S. workers die from hazardous working conditions. The overall rate of fatal job injuries in 2019 was 2.8 per 100,000.
“This year’s report is yet another reminder of the dangers facing working people in Minnesota every single day, not to mention the increased risk of COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021. While Minnesota’s workplace death rate was comparatively low compared to other states, a single death on the job is one too many,” said Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy. “Working people deserve better. We have a right to a safe workplace and a voice on the job. What’s more, we deserve leaders in St. Paul and Washington who will stand up for those rights.”
The report, titled “Death on the Job. The Toll of Neglect” marks the 30th year the AFL-CIO has produced its findings on the state of safety and health protections for workers within the United States. The report shows the highest workplace fatality rates are Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia.
Other report highlights show that Latino workers are at increased risk of work-related deaths, with a fatality rate of 4.2 per 100,000 workers. Black workers are at an increased risk of work-related deaths, with a job fatality rate of 3.6 per 100,000 workers, a sharp increase from recent years. In 2019, 634 Black workers died— the highest number in more than two decades. Workers 65 or older have nearly three times the risk of dying on the job than all workers, with a fatality rate of 9.4 per 100,000 workers in 2019.
Fifty years ago, on April 28 the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job. The law was won in 1970 because of the tireless efforts of the labor movement and allies, who drew major attention to work-related deaths, disease and injuries, organized for safer working conditions and demanded action from their government.
But today, due in part to the irresponsible anti-worker policies of the previous administration, OSHA’s meager resources have kept declining. Federal OSHA now has only 774 safety and health inspectors and state OSHA plans have a combined 1,024 inspectors—the lowest total number of OSHA inspectors since the creation of the agency. It would take federal OSHA 253 years to inspect all covered workplaces once.
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.