Progress stalls in reducing on-the-job injuries

Efforts to reduce workplace injuries and fatalities, as well as related costs to businesses, have stalled, with food and beverage manufacturing standing out as one of the most risky employment sectors, several reports from industry and government suggest.

"After years of steady decline, for the past three years the job fatality rate has essentially been unchanged, with a rate of 3.5 per 100,000 workers in 2011," concludes the 2013 edition of the AFL-CIO's "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect," an annual report now in its 22nd edition. The report cites two independent studies that peg the cost of occupational injuries and deaths at $250 billion-$300 billion annually.

One of those studies is generated by the insurance industry. The Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety concluded businesses pay between $150 billion and $300 billion in direct and indirect costs on workers' compensation losses. The 2012 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index put the direct costs in 2010 at $51.1 billion, "down only 0.1 percent from 2009." In inflation-adjusted dollars, direct costs for 2009 and 2010 are marginally better than 1998 and 2006. Direct costs peaked in 2002.

Slips and falls on the same level represent the fastest growing category of on-the-job injuries, up 42.3 percent over 12 years, Liberty Mutual found. It also is the second leading cause of injury, trailing only overexertion, which declined 5.7 percent in the same period.

Manufacturing is one of the leading industries in terms of occupational injuries, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and food and beverage production is at or near the top within the category. The bureau, lumping beverage and tobacco product manufacturing together, reports total recordable cases per 100 full-time workers in 2011 were 6.9, the highest manufacturing rate. The sector also led in cases with days away from work, job transfer or restriction (5.3) and cases with job transfer or restriction (2.5). Food manufacturing experienced a 5.6 per 100 injury rate, fourth highest in manufacturing and almost triple the rate in petroleum and coal-products manufacturing.

Food production's track record has not gone unnoticed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Two of the 10 highest enforcement cases in fiscal-2012 involved food processors: Tribe Mediterranean Foods Inc., a processor of hummus in Taunton, Mass., was assessed a $703,300 fine in June after a sanitation worker was crushed to death between rotating augers. Anaheim, Calif.-based Bridgfood Foods Corp. was given a $406,000 penalty for its frozen dough plant in Dallas for multiple violations, several involving an absence of guardrails on mixers and ovens.

On the all-time penalties list, Imperial Sugar's $6 million settlement following the 2008 explosion at its Port Wentworth, Ga., mill stands as the third largest payment. Fourteen people died and dozens were injured.

In the first four months of 2013, nine of the 100 enforcement actions announced by OSHA involved food plants. Proposed fines ranged from $54,000 to $228,900. Two involved ammonia refrigeration hazards, several were part of OSHA's Site Specific Targeting Program and employee complaints, and two followed worker deaths. A proposed penalty of $192,000 was included in a Feb. 11 citation issued to Bacardi Bottling Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla., after a temporary worker was crushed to death by a palletizing machine. A preliminary fine of $58,755 was proposed for Pilgrim's Price Corp. April 16 following the death of a worker caught in an unguarded hopper while attempting to remove a piece of cardboard.

"Too many people are dying on the job," says Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, in a statement issued in conjunction with the release of the organization's report. "Many workers are still unable to have a voice on the job and to advocate for better working conditions and a decent retirement."

While workplace enforcement programs have been stepped up and whistleblower programs have been strengthened in recent years, the AFL-CIO report suggests the outlook for improved job safety is dim. "Since the election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, progress in safety and health has been threatened," the executive summary concludes. "The Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for reviewing draft rules, has been blocking needed protections…..As a result, at the end of its first term, the Obama administration had issued fewer major OSHA rules than were issued by the Bush administration."