INCREASED JOB DEMANDS RAISE NEW CONCERNS ABOUT SAFETY
The decline of quality jobs—increased workloads, fewer employees and faster production rates—is emerging as a major safety and health issue for workers across a broad range of occupations and industries, according to the newly released AFL-CIO safety report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.
Truck drivers, health care workers, steelworkers and flight attendants are some of America’s many employees whose health risks are growing as the quality of their jobs declines.
In 2004, 36 steelworkers were killed on the job and USW (the merged union of the United Steelworkers of America and PACE International Union) says extraordinary pressure to compete with low-wage countries has led the steel industry to make unsafe cuts in production costs.
“Companies are dealing with the overseas competition by cutting back on crew sizes, layoffs, scaling back safety and health programs, delaying maintenance and running equipment full-out and that only leads to more workers getting hurt or killed on the job,” says Mike Wright, USW safety director.
Longshore workers at ports around the nation are seeing record levels of shipments, but the number of workers hasn’t grown enough to safely handle the surge. Dock workers’ unions say the recent upsurge of harbor accidents and fatalities is tied to the increased workloads that force longer, back-to-back shifts in an already dangerous work environment.
Truck drivers are on duty for 14 hours a day, 11 of those behind the wheel. Despite studies that show the risk of accidents greatly increases after eight hours at work, federal rules that govern how many hours truckers can drive on a shift were increased in 2004 by 10%.
For nurses and other health care workers, inadequate staffing and mandatory overtime puts patients’ safety at risk and threatens caregivers’ health and safety, according to Death on the Job. Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants had the highest number of musculoskeletal injuries of any occupation in 2003. These are injuries to the back, neck and shoulders caused by the cumulative effects of shifting, lifting and repositioning patients—risks that are compounded when fewer employees work longer hours.
Workers in many industries, including poultry and meatpacking, laundry, telecommunication call centers, hotels and others, also face such safety risks.
Employers that downsize work crews, implement speedups and cut corners on safety have little to fear from the Bush administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), safety advocates say. Funding for important worker safety programs has been cut and the agency has shifted its emphasis from tough enforcement of safety standards to encouraging employers to voluntarily comply. With current staffing and inspection levels, it would take OSHA 108 years to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just once, according to Death on the Job.