Econ-Atrocity: On Worker Deaths

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in the EU.[fn4] Even the small number of chemicals, upon which exposure limits have been set in the US, are grossly out of date based on more recent scientific data.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),

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


  • Can you put the risks and benefits in context?

    And can we weigh the benefits and costs of increased workplace regulation (as is done in Europe) versus other public health initiatives? For example, is it better to spend money on more regulation and enforcement of workplace safety or spend more money on childhood vaccines (or public service announcements to try to get people to quit smoking or…)?

  • If more executives were being killed, all talk of “weighing the benefits and the costs of regulation” would be jettisoned very quickly as we would be discussing how we must save our “best and brightest.” US labor standards are presently so atrocious with OSHA being gutted that discussing whether we are even approaching an optimal state that requires more calculation is statement worth of ridicule. If you don’t know this, you are seriously out of touch with workplace realities. Here is an easy cost benefit analysis, the wealth benefit and the workers end up sick or dead. That is exactly the type of risk benefit analysis corporations like. They will do that analysis and take that bargain all night long. And who would do this analysis of which you speak, some industry supported fake research institute like the Hoover or Brookings? Excuse me but cost benefit my a**. I always find it enjoyable when someone places immorality in some nice high minded concept like “cost benefit analysis.” This is typically the person who is either completely indoctrinated or simply paid off by the very companies violating safety standards.

  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

    Gavin, it’s not that I think cost-benefit analysis is always and everywhere a crock, but it really doesn’t seem like it much applies to this issue, at least at the levels we’re talking about. Our economy generates far more than enough to cover the costs of better regulation of workplace safety AND childhood vaccines–and that would continue to be the case even IF it were true that the increased regulations reduced total economic output. Our economy is so riddled with inefficiencies arising from flaws in the market(s) (as well as from flaws in regulations, of course) that I’m forced to share a mild version of Shaun’s more strident reaction. 55,000+ avoidable deaths each year — the large majority of which could be avoided at relatively low cost — is such low hanging fruit, the call for a round of cost-benefit analysis before beginning the reform effort does sound just plain callous.