Mary Vogel on How the Worker Death Rate Was Cut by Eighty Percent

In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In that year, 13,800 American workers died on the job. The death rate (deaths per 100,000 workers) was 18.


In 2013, 4,585 American workers died on the job. The death rate was 3.3.

That’s a more than an 80 percent reduction in the worker death rate.

The reason?

Regulation and law enforcement.

Mary Vogel is the executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

In an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter last week, Vogel said that criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations is one way to attack the rising death toll.

Her group released a report last week titled — Not an Accident: Preventable Deaths 2015 — from the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

In addition to the 4,585 on the job deaths every year, there are an additional 50,000 workers who die every year from workplace exposure to hazardous substances.

“Fifty-four thousand deaths a year is way too many,” Vogel told Corporate Crime Reporter. “We need tougher penalties. We need prosecutions for criminal violations. And we need to listen to workers, and use proven strategies that protect all workers, reduce injuries and save lives.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970. How have things changed since then?

“In 1970, 13,800 workers died on the job,” Vogel said. “In 2013, the number was 4,585. The fatality rate is deaths per 100,000 workers. The fatality rate in 1970 was 18. Last year, it was 3.4. That’s a drop of more than 80 percent since the passage of the law. Those saved lives are due to OSHA and due to regulation and enforcement.”

“But they are clearly still too high. We have over 4,500 workplace deaths due to to traumatic on the job injury. We have hit a plateau. It’s not getting that much better over the past couple years.”

How do we know that 50,000 workers die every year from exposure to hazardous substances?

“We get the 50,000 number based on epidemiological studies and other research,” Vogel said. “We have made some inroads in terms of controlling chemical exposures. But we are dealing with permissible exposure limits (PELs) that are decades old.”

“The way you bring down the exposure number and the traumatic injury number is through prevention. You eliminate the hazards at the outset.”

“If you are dealing with chemicals at a workplace, you eliminate toxic chemicals, where you can do that.”

“You create barriers so that workers are not exposed to those chemicals if you can’t substitute them.”

“And the last resort is personal protective equipment — respiratory protection as an example.”

Why hasn’t that been done?

“It has been done, but clearly the controls that have been put in place are not sufficient,” Vogel said. “Part of it is because the PELs are out of date. The employers are implementing controls to levels that are out of date. That’s part of the problem.”

Despite the 4,585 worker deaths a year, there were only two criminal prosecutions that resulted last year — the criminal prosecutions in the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine disaster which took the lives of 31 miners and a prosecution of a film director for the death of an assistant camera woman who was filming on a train track when a train killed her.

Of those 4,585 deaths on the job every year, how many are preventable?

“All of them,” Vogel said. “Unless you are struck by lightning.”

“Let’s get this down to zero,” she says. “Los Angeles County had a criminal prosecution unit that was focused on prosecuting workplace safety and health deaths. But Los Angeles was an isolated case. It just doesn’t happen enough.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Mary Vogel, see 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 18(13), May 4, 2014, print edition only.]

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