On the heels of revisions to Arizona’s occupational fall-protection standards, a national workplace safety report is calling for higher penalties for irresponsible employers and greater support for workers.
The report, released Wednesday by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, highlights the disproportionate fatality rate for Hispanic workers, with 4.2 deaths per 100,000 Hispanic workers, compared with 3.7 deaths per 100,000 for all U.S. workers.
“Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and retaliation,” Jessica Martinez, assistant director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a Wednesday conference call. She said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration must improve outreach efforts in Spanish and other languages to ensure workers from other countries understand their rights, particularly because these employees often work in high-risk jobs.
Preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found at least 4,383 deaths from traumatic injuries in 2012.
The deaths resulted from incidents that were largely preventable, the report said, and included falls, explosions, vehicle collisions, workplace violence and fatal contact with machinery.
“The failure to implement proven safe workplace practices have less to do with cost, feasibility or the availability of proper equipment and more to do with an imbalance of power in the workplace,” the report said.
About 15 percent of workplace fatalities are fall-related, and more than 100 Arizona workers died from falls on the job in the last decade, said Peter Dooley, a Tucson-based senior consultant for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
A debate over fall protection in residential home construction in Arizona has been ongoing for a couple of years, following 2012 legislation. The law established that conventional fall protection, like harnesses, guardrails or safety nets, is only required for home-building work above 15 feet, instead of the 6-foot threshold under federal OSHA rules. Between 6 and 15 feet, employers have the option of using alternative measures to reduce or eliminate fall risk.
Earlier this year, federal officials threatened to revoke Arizona’s ability to police homebuilders at the state level if those standards weren’t strengthened to match the stringency of federal OSHA rules.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1307, a bill revising the standards somewhat, but maintaining that for work done between 6 and 15 feet, employers can still have an alternative fall-protection plan. SB 1307 included a condition that if OSHA determines the revisions to the statute aren’t enough, the state will revert to the federal standard in order to keep homebuilding oversight at the state level.
Spencer Kamps, lobbyist with the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, said federal OSHA rules only expanded the 6-foot threshold to residential homebuilding in 2010. And between 2008 and 2010, Arizona had the first- or fourth-lowest ranking for construction fatalities of all reporting states, he said.
A federal OSHA official said in a March letter to the Industrial Commission of Arizona that in summer 2013, two Arizona workers suffered serious injuries after job-site falls from less than 15 feet. One worker in Buckeye had bleeding in the brain, broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder after falling 9.5 feet. Since 2003, 11 residential construction workers have died from falls in Arizona, the letter said.
Long-term exposure to hazardous materials and environments resulted in about 10 times as many deaths as acute injuries in 2007, the workplace safety report said. More than 50,000 people died that year from long-term exposure on the job, said a 2011 analysis by economist J. Paul Leigh.
Exposure to silica dust, found in construction materials like asphalt, concrete and grout, can cause impaired lung function and lead to lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and autoimmune disorders, the report said.
An estimate from OSHA said 688 lives could be saved by reducing worker exposure to the dust.
The report also highlights Arizona farm worker Ana Maria Barrera-Bogarin, who died last year after she was hit and run over by a produce trailer on a Somerton lettuce farm. Barrera-Bogarin, 60, was pronounced dead when she arrived at Yuma Regional Medical Center.
The fatality rate for farming, ranching and agricultural management — among the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. — is 21.3 deaths per 100,000 workers, compared with 3.2 per 100,000 for all U.S. workers, the report said.
Dooley says workplace deaths can be prevented by pressuring companies to prioritize worker safety, increasing fines for unsafe job conditions and encouraging workers to speak up about problems.
“Each one of these workplace fatalities is a wake-up call that should result in implementation of processes and systems in workplaces that prevent these types of tragedies, and unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening,” he said.