Report: Workplace Deaths Higher for Blacks and Other Minorities

Stark racial disparities in deaths from workplace trauma show an urgent need to address strategic racism and discrimination in U
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Stark racial disparities in deaths from workplace trauma show an urgent need to address strategic racism and discrimination in U.S. workplaces, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries on December 16. The data show 5,333 deaths from workplace trauma in 2019, a two percent increase from 2018 and a 10.3 percent increase over the five year period from 2015 to 2019. The five-year trend data also show a stark and alarming disparity in the relative increase of workplace deaths among different racial ethnic groups.

“Why are workplace deaths increasing so much faster for Black workers, Latinx workers and Asian American workers?” asked Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “The answer lies in decades of racism and discrimination, with workers of color routinely being assigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.”

“The effect of these awful practices has become more severe as more and more workers --- from all communities -- are pushed into insecure, precarious jobs,” said Martinez. “Fewer workers are now represented by unions, and many basic workplace protections have been eroded or eliminated. When our labor standards deteriorate, the most vulnerable workers suffer the most.”

“Sadly, there are irresponsible employers who seek to create and exploit racial divisions, to prevent workers from organizing and winning power to improve their working conditions,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, also a co-executive director of National COSH. “And all too often, workers who speak up about safety are met with illegal retaliation. We can reduce hazards and save lives once all workers, regardless of race or ethnicity, have a seat at the table and a meaningful voice in workplace conditions.”

Between 2015 and 2019, the rate of death from workplace trauma increased by 1.7 percent among white workers, 28 percent among Black workers, 20 percent among Hispanic or Latinx workers, 59 percent among Asian-American workers, and 56 percent among Native Hawaiian workers. Among Native American workers, workplace deaths decreased by 17 percent.

The CFOI data, collected annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, measures deaths from sudden workplace trauma, such as falls from height, drowning in a construction trench, or fatal collisions with machinery or equipment. The CFOI does not include deaths from long-term exposure to workplace hazards, such as toxic chemicals, which lead to fatalities from cancer, respiratory illnesses and other diseases. Long-term exposures are estimated to claim as many as 95,000 lives of U.S. workers every year.

The CFOI data for 2019 also does not show the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 claimed more than 300,000 lives in the U.S. in 2020; a significant percentage were essential and frontline workers, who make up as much as 70 percent of the 160 million-strong U.S. workforce, or nearly one-third of the overall U.S. population. Absent a significant change in data protocols, it is unlikely that 2020 CFOI data will capture COVID-19 deaths resulting from occupational hazards. These deaths typically take place outside of work, without any data collection regarding workplace exposure to the virus.

“COVID-19 is the most severe workplace health crisis in our lifetimes,” said Martinez. “Now is not the time to ignore the ongoing racism and discrimination that puts workers of color at greater risk if injury, illness and death. It’s urgent for all of us to confront these issues head on, upgrade our labor and safety standards, and create safe workplaces for all workers.”

National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace.

For more information, please visit NationalCOSH.org

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