People of color are dying while at work more than others, the AFL-CIO said in its latest report: “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.” 

Looking at the number of worker deaths in 2021, the union found that “Black workers died on the job at the highest rate in more than a decade” and “Latino workers continue to be at greater risk of dying on the job than all workers.”

“Black workers had a job fatality rate of 4.0 per 100,000 workers, a substantial increase from 3.5 in 2020 and 3.6 in 2019,” authors of the report stated. “This is now the third year in a row the fatality rate for Black workers is greater than the overall job fatality rate and the highest rate in more than a decade. In 2021, 653 Black workers died—up from 541 in 2020 and 634 in 2019—the highest number seen in more than two decades.

“The top industries where workplace fatalities occurred among Black workers in 2021 were transportation and warehousing (207), professional and business services (91), and construction (69). Within the transportation and warehousing industry, there were significant increases in Black worker fatalities from the previous year, including 19% among truck transportation (138 from 116), 183% among couriers and messengers (17 from 6), and 300% among warehousing and storage (12 from 3). In 2021, similar to all other workers, transportation incidents (267) was the top cause of fatalities among Black workers. The number of Black worker deaths due to violence on the job (155) increased from 125 in 2020, and is close to the highest number in the past decade, 160 in 2019. The third-leading cause of death was from contact with equipment (73).”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black workers and others of color were employed in jobs that exposed them to the dangers of the coronavirus disease. When COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in food processing plants, among transit workers, or in agricultural or warehouse-based job sites, workers who spoke up about those dangers often felt they risked losing their jobs while trying to protect their lives. 

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One recent example of this was in New York with the case of Chris Smalls, the former Amazon Staten Island warehouse worker who was fired from his job and went on to co-found the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). Smalls had alleged that Amazon did not provide proper safety precautions for its majority people of color line workers who worked in person throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He claimed that, in contrast, the health and safety concerns of white workers––who held most of the management-level positions at the company’s Staten Island warehouse––were better attended to.

Smalls alleges that Services LLC fired him because he organized and led fellow workers on a walkout on March 30, 2020. 

“At the peak of the recent Omicron surge, the COVID-19 death rate among working-age Black and Latino people was more than 1.5 times to 2.0 times the death rate among white people,” the AFL-CIO report noted. “Throughout the pandemic, there has been a scattered patchwork of mitigation measures to prevent exposures and infections, but this approach has not been effective in protecting people at work, where employers are responsible for protecting workers from occupational exposures.”

In the state of New York, worker fatalities increased from 233 in 2001 to 247 in 2021. Numbers show that 5,190 working people were killed on the job across the United States in 2021, and an estimated 120,000 more died from occupational diseases. 

Even with these numbers available, reports out of Washington, D.C., are that members of the hard-right Republican House Freedom Caucus have put together a bill designed to defund the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency created by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970 to enforce safe and healthy working standards. 

A bill proposed by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) is to “provide for a limitation on availability of funds for [the] Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration for fiscal year 2024.” The bill might only see the light of day via Republican Party attempts to negotiate the national debt ceiling, but it states that it is designed to “notwithstanding any other provision of the law, amounts authorized to be appropriated or otherwise available for Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration for fiscal year 2024 may not exceed $0.”

Biggs has said he believes private corporations and state governments should be able to regulate themselves. 

Biggs would also like to eliminate the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services.

“Fifty-two years ago on April 28, the OSH Act went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job,” the AFL-CIO report said. “More than 668,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the OSH Act. Since that time, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness, or death as chemical plant explosions, major fires, construction collapses, infectious disease outbreaks, workplace assaults, and other preventable workplace tragedies continue to occur. Workplace hazards kill and disable approximately 125,000 workers each year—5,190 from traumatic injuries, and an estimated 120,000 from occupational diseases. Job injury and illness numbers continue to be severe undercounts of the real problem.”

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