The Multinational Monitor

September 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 9


Dying for the Job
The State of Workplace Health and Safety
in the United States


An Interview with Lisa Cullen

Lisa Cullen for years worked as a corporate safety and health manager. She was so distressed by what she saw that she quit her job and vowed to write a book, now published as A Job to Die For: Why So Many Americans Are Killed, Injured or Made Ill at Work and What To Do About It, about what is wrong in the U.S. workplace.

As a nation, our occupational injury and illness rate rivals that of AIDS, Alzheimer's, certain types of cancers.

Multinational Monitor: Why did you write A Job to Die For?
Lisa Cullen:
As a nation, our occupational injury and illness rate rivals that of AIDS, Alzheimer's, certain types of cancers. There is very little research on it. There is very little public awareness of it. There is very little investigative journalism about corporate behavior as to worker protection.

MM: How many people die in the United States from work-related injuries?
Cullen:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that only 16 workers die a day from work-related injuries. The 18 number I rely on is based on a study that was done by a team of experts headed by J. Paul Leigh and originally released in 1997. That same team then expanded their study into a book in 2000 titled Cost of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses.

MM: These numbers are way down from 30 years ago. Are safety programs working?
Cullen:
Well, many companies do have good safety programs. But the wild card is the occupational disease number 165 Americans die every day due to occupational diseases, according to the Leigh team. But compared to 30 years ago, we don't know the trend. Occupational diseases are poorly detected and tracked. Also, while the overall Bureau of Labor Statistics injury rates are going down, the injury rates have increased for women, miners and Hispanic workers and within certain industries.

MM: One hundred and sixty five die every day from occupational diseases, 18 die every day from work-related injuries, 36,400 suffer non-fatal injuries, and 3,200 get ill from occupational diseases, every day. You say that all of this costs $155 billion a year.
Cullen:
Yes, according to the Leigh team. Another study put out just this year by Liberty Mutual the nation's largest workers' compensation carrier puts that number at between $160 billion and $240 billion a year.

These are direct and indirect costs. These do not include pain and suffering. These are also only the costs businesses are covering, not those paid directly by the injured or ill workers.

MM: Since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created in 1970, the death rates from injuries in the United States have gone down.
Cullen:
OSHA has been successful on many different fronts. But OSHA has been so poorly supported by Congress and by the public. With their current budget and staffing there are 2,238 federal and state OSHA inspectors for 8 million workplaces it would take OSHA 119 years to inspect every work place. It is just not possible.

Now, I don't think we would want an OSHA that is capable of going out and physically inspecting every workplace. We need employers to run their workplaces in a safe and healthy manner to begin with.

Many already do. But for those who don't, we need to strengthen the threat of OSHA and carry out the original intent of the OSH Act: To pose a threat of fines and jail time if employees are found to have violated the standards. If you look at the numbers, OSHA is just not coming through with any serious threat. Companies know this.

MM: How frequently are criminal penalties imposed for employers exposing their workers to dangerous conditions?
Cullen:
I was looking recently to find out how many people actually received jail time for willful OSHA violations. I couldn't find one. I don't know if anybody has served any serious jail time for a workplace fatality. There was a recent case where someone was sentenced 17 years I think but it was under an environmental law.

MM: You worked with companies as a safety officer. Why can't companies by themselves assure a safe workplace?
Cullen:
Many can and many do. Many want to keep their workers safe and healthy. These are people they work with. These are people that keep their businesses going. But as with anything, there are those that need more pressure to do things the right way. Sometimes it costs money. The threat of an inspection or a penalty helps push some employers who may choose to take a short cut to do the right thing.

MM: Do the majority of employers want to do the right thing?
Cullen:
I would hope so, yes.

MM: They know that a strong OSHA helps them do the right thing. Why don't the businesses organize to give OSHA a little more muscle?
Cullen:
They do the opposite. A company will protect their workers to the point that they know it is necessary. They don't want to lose people and incur replacement costs, training new staff, lost productivity. But there are certain things that are more insidious. Carpal tunnel syndrome might cause employees pain but not cause them to lose work time. Also, long-term illnesses those with latency periods might not show up on a particular employer's watch.

In those gray areas, OSHA helps keep the playing field level if they would consistently apply the regulations and enforce them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

For example, a company I worked for required shoring excavations so they would not cave in on workers. But once my manager literally drove down the road from our worksite to find the competition working without shoring. They took chances and were lucky that they did not have a cave-in. They did the job cheaper and it was harder to bid against. That was hard for my boss to deal with.

MM: In your book, you raise the example of Crouse Hinds, which is a division of Cooper Industries. They were involved in a case where a worker was killed.
Cullen:
I did a search for employers who received what is known as "unclassified" citations. That case came up, among others.

Traditionally, there have been four types of violations willful, serious, repeat and other.

If an employer doesn't abate a hazard, they might get a failure to abate citation.

"Unclassified" is a relatively new citation, created by federal OSHA. It lets the employer off the hook for future repeat citations and it removes the stigma and legal implications of a willful violation.

MM: In this case, a worker was killed. Ultimately, there was no willful citation. Why do companies fear a willful citation?
Cullen:
Because they can be exposed to increased liability if they are proven to have willfully violated the OSHA standard. It changes the rules as far as lawsuits after the fact. It makes the exclusive remedy under workers' compensation trickier.

MM: Under these agreements, the company is let off the hook, other than the fine.
Cullen:
Yes, and that's well known by corporate attorneys. I cite in the book an example of an advertisement by a law firm boasting of how it negotiated unclassified violations.

And I just read a magazine article last month where the writer was advising safety and health professionals to fight willful violations because of the legal implications. They know that they can get OSHA to back off.

So, these unclassifieds shouldn't exist. OSHA is changing willfuls to unclassifieds. But OSHA is also initially issuing unclassifieds which is inconsistent with their own practice. And this has been going on for over 10 years.

MM: Does the law need to be changed?
Cullen:
No, it just needs to be enforced. OSHA has been inconsistent, and they have created this big loophole of unclassified citations.

There is nothing wrong with the original OSH Act, just this practice of creating and modifying citations and penalties. Not only does OSHA remove the stigma associated with the willful violation, it discounts the penalties an average of 30 percent and removes the possibility of criminal prosecution.

MM: You point out that occupational disease and injury affects not just blue collar workers.
Cullen:
Over the past 20 years, employment has shifted from manufacturing to service industries.

So, today, you have what I call the traditional blue collar jobs, the light blue collar jobs, and the smock jobs which are your retail and your cashiers, your restaurant workers, hotel workers, and white collar workers. There are hazards, diseases and injuries posed by all of those jobs. Twenty percent of fatalities occur in construction sites. We are seeing violence and homicide on the job in retail jobs. Indoor air quality affects white collar workers. Occupational injuries and illnesses don't discriminate.

MM: You say that the surveillance system set up by the federal government has failed us.
Cullen:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is supposed to count how many injuries and illnesses that we have. One problem with this system is that employers are self-reporting injuries and illnesses. There is a natural incentive to underreport.

The Leigh team estimated that Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are off by 53 percent. That is caused by a number of factors underreporting, the exclusion of public employees, exclusion of entire industries, and the exclusion of small employers. There is also the problem that employers may genuinely not know what occupational diseases are arising from their workplaces. An obstructive lung disorder, for example, may not be recognized as a occupational illness by a doctor, let alone an employer.

MM: Part of OSHA's job is to issue new health and safety standards. How is it doing on this front?
Cullen:
OSHA's standard setting process has been completely derailed. And that's quite well recognized in the safety and health community. I can't see how OSHA can produce major standards anymore like Lock and Tag Out (requiring employers to isolate machinery and put a lock on and a tag on it that says, "Do not operate"), Process Safety Management or Confined Space Entry that have saved thousands of lives.

OSHA tried with ergonomics, just to have Congress overthrow it.

It takes OSHA 10 years to promulgate one standard.

Beryllium is a metal used in the electronics industry and in defense because it is such a useful metal. Beryllium is also a known human carcinogen. OSHA has acknowledged that its exposure limit is too high. Even the Department of Energy's exposure limit for beryllium is 10 times lower than OSHA's. OSHA continues to have this high exposure limit. And OSHA's limit is the one that is legally enforceable for most workers.

Public Citizen and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers union have petitioned OSHA to lower the beryllium limit but OSHA doesn't do it. They are also suing OSHA to lower the hexavalent chromium standard.

For both, I think OSHA should issue Emergency Temporary Standards and lower the permissible exposure limits. Of course, OSHA would then be sued by affected industries. The current beryllium limit is 50 years old. The electronics industry, for example, doesn't want the exposure limit lowered. There are about 30,000 workers estimated to be exposed to beryllium just in the electronics industry.

MM: Most people who use computers assume electronics is a clean industry.
Cullen:
It is not. They use strong acids, metals like arsenic and lead, solvents and toxic gases to make the parts that make up a computer, like the circuit boards and silicon chips.

What makes exposures in industries like electronics difficult to control is the combinations and mixtures used.

MM: Do we know what the rate of occupational disease is among workers making computers?
Cullen:
No one really knows because the industry is still fairly new and cancer typically takes 20 to 25 years to show itself. Occupational surveillance is close to nil.

People are confused because they hear that computer chips are manufactured in clean rooms. But they are clean to protect the equipment. They are not necessarily clean for the workers.

MM: You make the point in your book that while we say that injuries and deaths are the result of accidents, in a sense they are not accidents.
Cullen:
An accident has the connotation that these things are out of our control.

These are not out of our control. These injuries and deaths are preventable. So, I don't like to call them accidents.

We have the technology and knowledge to do a much better job. And we can save people's lives. We can stop families from being destroyed when their bread winner is put out of work. We can do much better. n

With their current budget and staffing there are 2,238 federal and state OSHA inspectors for 8 million workplaces it would take OSHA 119 years to inspect every workplace.

Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers [on workplace injuries have been estimated to be] off by 53 percent. That is caused by a number of factors underreporting, the exclusion of public employees, exclusion of entire industries, and the exclusion of small employers.