Silver Taube: Remembering lives lost in the workplace on Workers’ Memorial Day
Workers strike and protest over health and safety at Jack in the Box on Story Road in San Jose on April 10, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Silver Taube.

    On April 28, 1970, the OSH Act went into effect. Since that time, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But despite the progress, too many workers are still at serious risk of injury, illness or death at work.

    Workers’ Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for workers killed, disabled or injured on the job, is observed annually on April 28. This year, health and safety nonprofit Worksafe is hosting an event at 6 p.m. at the Laborers’ International Union Hall at 2195 Fortune Drive in San Jose with community groups and unions. The event will feature Cal/OSHA, federal OSHA, workers from various industries, union leaders, Filipino food, interactive displays and music.

    The United States had a total of 5,190 fatal work injuries in 2021, meaning a worker died every 101 minutes from an occupational injury over the course of the year. The number of fatal work injuries increased 8.9% from 4,764 in 2020. The fatal injury rate was 3.6 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers in 2021—the highest rate since 2016—up from 3.4 per 100,000 workers in 2020. The pre-pandemic rate in 2019 was 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. In 2020, the private construction industry accounted for 1,008 deaths, or 21.2% of total deaths. This was followed by transportation and warehousing with 805 deaths, or 16.9% of total deaths.

    The health care and retail industry experienced a large number of injuries and illnesses. In 2020, there were 78,740 cases of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses that resulted in at least one day away from work among registered nurses in private industry. This was a nearly 291% increase, about four times as many cases compared with 2019 when there were 20,150 such cases. There were also 806,200 injury and illness cases in private health care and social assistance, a 40% increase from 2019. This was driven by a 958% increase in illness cases. Private retail trade experienced a 217% increase in illness cases.

    For the fourth straight year in a row since 2016, Hispanic and Latino workplace deaths increased. Hispanic and Latino workers accounted for 22.5% of workplace deaths in 2020, up from 20.4% in 2019.

    Workplace violence statistics are staggering. There were 392 workplace homicides in 2020. There were also 37,060 nonfatal injuries in the workplace resulting from an intentional injury by another person. The five occupational groups with the most workplace homicides in 2020 were sales, transportation and material moving, management, construction and extraction, and production.

    Fast-food workers experience high levels of workplace violence. In a report by UC Berkeley, an analysis of 911 calls made from fast-food locations in major cities throughout California shows that many fast-food restaurants experience high rates of violent activity, including assault, sexual assault and theft. Across 643 locations in nine cities, the researchers identified 77,200 violent or threatening incidents over a four-year period.

    One McDonald’s worker interviewed for the UC Berkeley report was jumped and beaten to the point of concussion by a man he had inadvertently bumped with a dustpan. Another was choked behind the register by a customer. A young KFC worker was shot with a BB gun outside the drive-thru and management offered little support. Other workers described being held up at gun point, battered through the drive-thru window, stalked by angry customers and verbally threatened. On Monday, there was a protest at a Jack in the Box on Story Road in San Jose because two workers were taken to the hospital after a customer brutally punched and kicked them.

    The franchise model plays a significant role in the failure to prevent workplace violence at fast-food restaurants. Franchisees who may want to do the right thing are hampered by onerous economic and operational constraints imposed by the parent companies. Large global brands like McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Burger King have no incentive to combat violence at franchises because they can evade legal responsibility under current laws. A bill recently introduced in the Assembly, AB 1228, would impose joint liability on the parent companies and require them to support franchisees to solve problems such as workplace violence and other workplace violations.

    California’s workplace violence prevention regulations are currently applicable only to the health care industry. On Feb. 15, state Sen. Dave Cortese introduced SB 553, which would require Cal/OSHA to adopt regulations requiring any employer not subject to the health care regulations to adopt a workplace violence prevention plan as part of the employer’s injury and illness prevention plan.

    Cal/OSHA is working on proposed general industry workplace violence prevention standards. In May 2022, Cal/OSHA issued a revised draft of a proposed workplace violence prevention regulation applicable to all industries that would require employers to implement measures to prevent and respond to workplace violence. The proposed regulation has not yet been adopted.

    In the face of serious health and safety workplace issues, the Trump administration rolled back longstanding workplace safety protections—targeting job safety rules, safety examinations and injury reporting, and cutting agency budgets and staff.

    In the fall of 2019, the federal OSHA began reducing the number of inspections, a policy still in place today. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA was largely absent from workplaces. While the number of inspectors and inspections improved in fiscal year 2021, there is much more progress to be made.

    OSHA must engage in more rigorous enforcement of health and safety laws, and California must enact a workplace violence standard. We should also pay tribute to the workers who were killed, disabled or injured on the job. We hope to see you on Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28 at 6 p.m. at the Laborers’ Hall at 1295 Fortune Drive. The event is free, but please register online.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].

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