By Dr. David Michaels and Joseph Main – April 27, 2015
Chad Weller grew up in Maryland. He liked hunting and fishing and planned to join the Navy. Chad was a communication tower technician, and he died a year ago when he fell from a tower. Today, his mother will join us and our colleagues in Washington as the Department of Labor renews its commitment to workplace safety, and remembers the workers who have been killed, injured or sickened by their jobs.
Those numbers are lower than they used to be, although they are still too high. In 2013, 4,585 workers were killed on the job. Before the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed in 1970, that number was more than three times higher, even though the workforce was about half the size. Workplace injuries and illnesses have dropped too – for every 10 incidents that occurred in 1972 we saw only 3.4 in 2011.
Forty-five years ago last month, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 went into effect. It was the toughest worker health and safety law at a time when hundreds of coal miners were dying each year. In 2014, the number of coal mining deaths dropped to 16, the lowest ever recorded. In the metal and nonmetal mining industry, however, 28 miners died, six more than in the previous year.
The toll that black lung disease has taken on our nation’s coal miners is staggering. Since 1968, more than 76,000 miners have died of it, and more than $45 billion in federal compensation benefits has been paid out to coal miners disabled by black lung and their survivors. Last year, MSHA published a landmark rule aimed at lowering miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust, so others would not suffer like Chester Fike, a West Virginia coal miner who died following a failed double lung transplant. And new rules proposed today would increase coal miners’ access to health records, make the claims process more transparent and efficient, and increase accountability for paying black lung benefits.
When it comes to workplace fatalities and injuries, the only acceptable number is zero. We appreciate that fewer workers are killed each year on the job, but for the people who know them, they’re not numbers – they’re neighbors. They’re mothers and fathers and friends and coworkers. And their deaths, far too often, are preventable. But the personal loss and sorrow from workplace death and injury are not the only problems; we also know that workplace injuries and illnesses contribute to the pressing issue of income inequality. They force working families out of the middle class and into poverty, and keep the families of lower-wage workers from ever getting out.
For all of these reasons, there is clearly still more work to be done, which is why we renew our commitment to worker safety and health every year on April 28. Workers Memorial Day is also an opportunity to recognize that workers have a voice. And it’s important that they know their rights and how to exercise them.
The originators of the Occupational Safety and Health Act understood that workplace safety would be better assured if workers had the right to participate in the process of ensuring workplace safety. For that reason, workers have the right to a workplace free of serious hazards. They have the right to request an OSHA or, in the case of miners, an MSHA inspection. They have the right to raise safety concerns with their employer and to receive training about hazards and prevention in a language they understand. And they can exercise those rights without retaliation or discrimination.
Miners have additional rights under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which superseded the 1969 act. One of the most important is the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. MSHA has used that law to give miners a stronger voice in the workplace and send a strong message that the agency has a miner’s back when he or she is retaliated against for exercising those rights. Since 2010, the Department of Labor has filed a historic number of discrimination complaints on miners’ behalf, as well as temporary reinstatement actions to put them back in their jobs.
And employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace, so that their employees don’t suffer work-related injuries or illnesses. We’ve seen plenty of evidence that doing so isn’t just humane; it’s smart business. A safe and healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and companies managed for safety are more profitable than ones that aren’t.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. Joseph A. Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.