When we think of countries with the most hazardous working conditions, grueling 14-hour work days that put a worker’s own safety—as well as the public’s—at risk, we usually envision some sweatshop on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, when it comes to unsafe job sites, the United States of America has plenty to fix. In a nation that prides itself on protecting civil rights, guarding against exposure to hazardous substances and ensuring safe food and drinking water, 13 workers still die on the job on average every day. That’s 13 too many.
Another 50,000 Americans die from occupational diseases every year. Let me put that into perspective—50,000 is roughly equivalent to the populations of Ames, Iowa; Grand Forks, N.D., and Pine Bluff, Ark., according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data. We must do better.
By the way, this problem also costs money. According to the 2012 edition of Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect just published by the AFL-CIO, the cost of job injuries and illnesses is estimated to be $250-$300 billion per year. To add insult to injury, literally, the AFL-CIO report says the number of workers killed or injured in this country is greatly underestimated and underreported. While more than 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported in 2010, in reality, that number is actually 7.6 million at a minimum.
A large portion of the problem is in transportation. Workplace fatality rates per 100,000 workers averaged 3.6% in 2010 for all industries while that rate more than triples in transportation to 13.7%. We have much to do to bring down job injury and death rates in our sector.
Too many transportation workers are chronically fatigued and our rules often fail to provide uniform standards such as the air cargo carve-out in our pilot fatigue rules. Too many transportation workers are falling through the cracks of coverage and enforcement of safety rules. Too many transportation workers work in unsafe and often inhumane conditions. Some transportation workers find themselves fighting against an outsourcing epidemic that threatens safety. We don’t even have consistent rules ensuring that school bus transportation is as safe as it can be for passengers and drivers.
The list of transportation safety risks is too long and complex for a single blog. And to be sure we will always face a torrent of corporate lobbying against sensible safety regulations. But we cannot stand passively by. We must, as the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights suggests, “speak truth to power” and defend a basic human right in this country—the right to a safe and healthy work environment.