More Oregon workers die on the job than are reported

SALEM, OR -- Four-hundred and seven workers died on the job in Oregon from 1991 to 1995, a good deal more than the 295 reported by the Oregon-Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA) over the same time period.

The 407 death figure came from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, a joint effort by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and OSHA departments in all 50 states that track work-related fatalities. From 1980 to 1989, the federally-run National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported "105 Oregon workers died each year as a result of workplace injuries (1050)." OR-OSHA catalogues for its official publications an average of 81.2 -- or 812 -- job-related fatalities over the same time.

A new report to be released by the national AFL-CIO Department of Safety and Health in conjunction with the labor federation's observance of Workers Memorial Day April 28, reported 73 job-related deaths in Oregon in 1995, compared to only 48 listed by OR-OSHA. The report, "Death on the Job: A Toll of Workplace Neglect," lists worker safety and health statistics for 1995 and 1996 on a state-by-state basis.

According to Steve Corson of the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS), which oversees OR-OSHA, the discrepancy is because only deaths that are compensable under the state's workers' compensation system are recorded in official OR-OSHA documents.

Which means when the media publish the state government's official statistics on work-related deaths they are excluding a large segment of workers.

"It's a picture as painted by the Oregon Workers Compensation Department," said Carl Halgren of federal OSHA's Portland office."It's misleading to say that this (OR-OSHA's fatality report) is the fatality rate for the total population in the state."

Steve Hecker, an associate professor at the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon in Eugene, agreed that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to distinguish on-the-job deaths "by what type of insurance workers are covered under."

Hecker, co-author of the 1995 report, "Declining Occupational Injury Rates in Oregon: A Preliminary Investigation of Variables, Data Resources and Directors for Research," said that historically, counting methods by various agencies for work-related deaths and injuries have produced widely different figures.

"I think we'e getting better at getting a truer number of actual fatalities," he said, "but we still have discrepancies from the different data-collecting agencies."

It was because of this discrepancy that the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries report was launched in 1991 following a recommendation by a National Academy of Sciences panel that in 1987 "found it rather startling that an agreed-upon method has not been devised to estimate a phenomenon as basic as traumatic death in the workplace."

The panel recommended that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics form a partnership with federal and state agencies (such as DCBS) in all 50 states to gather data and compile rosters of occupational fatalities.

The census provides a more uniform definition for on-the-job fatalities covering "nearly all workers who are engaged in legal work activities" by using not only workers' compensation and state OSHA reports, but death certificates, state medical examiner reports and other documents to track work-related deaths.

The "Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, Fatal Work-Related Injuries, Oregon, 1995" was released by DCBS at the request of the NW Labor Press.

Workers most likely to go unreported by OR-OSHA are the self-employed because their deaths seldom create any workers' compensation or OR-OSHA paperwork.

Excluded from mandatory workers' compensation coverage in Oregon, and, therefore, not counted in OR-OSHA statistics, are household employees, casual labor, employees subject to federal laws (Railroad Retirement Act, Federal Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act, Jones Act and Federal Employees Compensation Act), and City of Portland police and firefighters, to name a few.

The federal census, on the other hand, includes in its report a death if it occurred on or off an employer's premises and the person was there to work; or the event or exposure was related to the person's work or status as an employee. Volunteers who are exposed to the same work hazards and perform the same duties as paid employees also are included.

Because BLS and the states are still testing definitions of work-related illnesses, specifically heart attacks and strokes, the 134 fatal illness cases reported in Oregon over the five-year period -- nearly all were heart attacks or strokes -- are not included in the report. Of the 407 fatalities in Oregon, 56 were self-employed or members of a family business. This included 18 workers in agriculture or fishing, 11 in logging, seven in construction and nine in the transportation industry. Seventy-four workers lived outside Oregon (28 in Washington), and 49 were employed by non-Oregon companies.

According to the federal census, agriculture, forestry and fishing, which are categorized as one industry, was the most dangerous with a rate of 20.8 deaths per 100,000 workers over five years. Construction was second at 15.7 per 100,000.

Nationwide, 6,210 work-related deaths were recorded in 1995 by the federal census. This compares to 6,632 deaths re-corded in 1994 and 6,331 re-corded in 1993.

OSHA Inspections Drop Federal OSHA performed 24,030 workplace inspections in fiscal year 1996 -- a significant drop from the 42,377 performed in fiscal year 1994.

The 24 state-run OSHA programs made 57,199 inspections. In Oregon, OR-OSHA reported making 5,186 safety and health inspections in fiscal year 1996.

According to the national AFL-CIO report, it would take 19 years for OSHA to inspect each workplace in Oregon once.

The average penalty paid by Oregon employers in 1996 for incidents resulting in a serious injury or death was $316.

"The average employer penalty puts Oregon in the bottom 10 in the country" and nearly $1,000 lower than the average fine of $1,354 in Maine, said Rex Tingle of the AFL-CIO's Department of Safety and Health in Washington, D.C. The average penalty nationwide was $652. Oregon's workplace inspection rate is far superior to the national average of once every 86 years. At the bottom is Kansas, where it would take 421 years for the state's seven compliance officers to inspect the 76,000 work sites.

The AFL-CIO said the decline in federal inspections means OSHA is "no longer a credible threat."

"We really tanked it last year when it came to inspections," acknowledged Halgren of Portland's federal OSHA office. "We've bumped that up in 1997. We are conducting many, many more inspections this year."

He attributed the decline to a multitude of issues, including the length of time it took to "reinvent" federal OSHA offices to establish strategic planning and response teams. He said "morale was horrible" because of the government shutdown and Congress' attempts to curtail the program, but that OSHA did make a push to emphasize significant cases, which are employer fines in excess of $100,000. "We almost doubled our significant cases last year," he said.


April 18, 1997 issue

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