By Patrice Woeppel, Ed.D.
Author of Depraved Indifference: the Workers’ Compensation System
March 16, 2009
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) records 5,488 worker fatalities for 2007, the most recent year for which their data is completed. But the number of worker fatalities recorded by BLS is grossly under-reported.
Worker deaths from toxic exposures, other work illnesses are conservatively estimated by NIOSH and other researchers at 50,00 to 60,000 deaths each year, or ten times the number of fatalities from work injuries.[fn1] [fn2] [fn3] It is a disaster of monumental proportions that goes largely unrecorded. The United States has no comprehensive occupational health data collection system.
As we have lagged behind other nations in our lack of a national comprehensive medical and statistical database on occupational illnesses, occupational injuries; we have lagged behind in the research into the causes and consequences of occupational illnesses that would lead to improved diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and ultimately prevention, of occupational toxic exposures and resultant diseases.
While the United States has set permissible exposure limits on less than 500 of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals in use in workplaces throughout our country, the EU regulates 30,000 chemicals utilized in their workplaces, and many that we allow here have been banned for years in the EU.[fn4] Even the small number of chemicals, upon which exposure limits have been set in the US, are grossly out of date based on more recent scientific data.
It is a major and costly health issue ““ costly in lives, and costly in dollars. The economic burden for occupational illness, injury and death in our country is an estimated $170 billion annually. It is an economic burden that falls mainly on families (44%) and on taxpayers (18%); with only 27%, on average, being paid by workers’ compensation.[fn5]
There has been very little general public awareness of this system that maims and kills with impunity. The time is long overdue to re-evaluate a structure that evolved over one hundred years ago; and which clearly doesn’t meet the needs of seriously injured, ill, or toxic chemical-exposed workers, or the families of workers who died from their work ““ a system that has fostered devastating and lasting damage to families, to communities, to our environment.
Increasingly as a nation, we have been all too willing to push corporate costs onto workers and taxpayers; and all too willing to cut protections for workers, communities.
Occupational illness deaths are now the eighth leading cause of death in the US, more than many of the diseases that receive far more government, public, and media attention.[fn6] We need to right this terrible, continuing American tragedy.
1. Leigh, J. Paul; Markowitz, Steven; Fahs, Marianne; Landrigan, Philip. Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. University of Michigan Press, 2000.
2 U.S. House of Representatives. Hidden Tragedy: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses. A Majority Staff Report by the Committee on Education and Labor. Honorable George Miller, Chairman, June 2008.
3.Steenland, Kyle; Burnett, Carol; Lalich, Nina; et al.Dying for Work: The Magnitude of US Mortality From Selected Causes of Death Associated With Occupation, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol 43, pp 461-482, 2003.
4. Regulation EC 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), http://eur-lex.europa.eu.
5. op. cit. Leigh, et al, 2000.
6. LaDou, J., M.D. Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the United State: A Proposal to Abolish Workers’ Compensation and Reestablish the Public Health Model, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the United States. 2006; 12 (2) 154-168; and US Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics System, National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol 53, Number 5. Deaths: Final Data for 2002, Table 10 and Worktable I, pp. 1585, 1634, 1662, 1703, 2220-2224, at cdc.gov/hchs/data/dvs/mortfinal2002_workipt2.pdf.