April 29, 2013

Jobs With Justice

Report Finds Workplace Safety in Tennessee Lags Behind the Nation

A special report, examining the state of workplace health and safety in Tennessee, concludes that “overall job fatality rates in Tennessee are about 39% higher” than rates for the rest of the United States.

In addition it finds that injuries and illnesses rates are consistently higher in Tennessee than the U.S. Specific sectors with higher rates include utilities, construction, mining, manufacturing, and hospitals.”

The report, Tennessee Workers: Dying for a Job—A Report on Worker Fatalities in Tennessee, 2011 and 2012, was the first of its kind for Tennessee, but similar reports have been published in recent years by health and safety activists in California, Massachusetts and North Carolina.  The National Council on Occupational Health and Safety (National COSH) has a report of its own, as well as a website that offers resources and networking for others interested in highlighting workplace health and safety.

The Tennessee report was a joint effort between a labor-community coalition called “Bridges to Justice” in Knoxville, and a professor of Public Health and his students at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. The Bridges to Justice coalition emerged in 2011 after two workers were killed on a major bridge renovation project in Knoxville and it is continuing a long-term campaign that includes outreach to workers, pressure on employers, work with the media, and advocacy with public officials.  The founding organizations of Bridges to Justice are Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee, Iron Workers Local 384, Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee, and Laborers Local 818.  The Knoxville-Oak Ridge Area Central Labor Council joined them in sponsoring the report.

“The findings of this report should be shocking to every Tennessean who believes that working men and women who leave for their jobs each morning have a right to expect that they will return home to their families in the evening,” said Fran Ansley, Bridges to Justice, who is one of the report’s authors.

“What is especially disturbing about workplace fatalities,” said Ansley, “is that the overwhelming majority of these deaths can be avoided if basic safety practices are in place and observed.”

The report was released in conjunction with Workers’ Memorial Day, the annual ceremony observed around the nation and overseas that commemorates those workers who have lost their lives on the job. The Knoxville ceremony, which took place on April 27, remembered and honored workers who lost their lives in Tennessee in 2011 and 2012.  It was organized by Bridges to Justice and the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Area Central Labor Council. Mayors Madeline Rogero (City of Knoxville) and Tim Burchett (Knox County) attended the ceremony and announced a joint proclamation.  The highlight of the observance this year was attendance by family members of three of the workers who were killed in East Tennessee last year.

The report also highlights individual workers, featuring personal stories of six men who were killed. The nature and causes of the fatal accidents are described, illustrating the breakdowns in safety practices that contributed to their loss of life, along with the subsequent impact on their families, parents and friends. The report also provides detailed statistics on job fatalities in Tennessee, 2011-2012, death by industry, types of fatal incidents, and trends over time. It notes that Tennessee overall job fatality rate has remained constant in recent years, about 5.0 per 100,000 workers. This compares to 3.6 for the U.S. as a whole in 2011. So the state’s rate is 29% to 50% higher than the national rate.”   Similarly, “Tennessee had higher rates of all occupational illnesses than the U.S. as a whole from 2008 to 2011.”

What this report unmistakably reflects is the fact that workers need protection in their work places, both from safety and health hazards, and from other types of employer misconduct. Too often, when workers attempt to organize to combat exploitation, unscrupulous employers have the ability to threaten workers for exercising their labor rights. These employers are infrequently held liable for labor law violations, and even when workers are killed, the penalties assessed against companies found responsible for serious safety violations are so low they do nothing to deter similar conduct in the future.

The dangerous working conditions that confront too many Tennesseans should not be allowed to continue. This report makes recommendations that include increasing fines for OSHA violations, instructing OSHA to adopt combustible dust standard, and enacting immigration reform that includes strong on-going protection for immigrant workers. The report also makes recommendations for OSHA along with TOSHA and the Tennessee General Assembly.

For more information, check out the website at http://etiwj.org/ETIWJweb/Dying_for_Work.html


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