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10 Facts About the State of Workplace Safety in the U.S.

Jun 17, 2024
Group of workers wearing PPE on a construction site

While U.S. workplace safety has improved since the passage of the landmark Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act in 1970, progress has recently stalled — even as enduring problems like safety inequity continue and new hazards emerge.

The comprehensive annual report, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2024” published by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) covers the state of workplace safety in the U.S., highlighting several key issues: 

  • Black and Latino workers are at greater risk for injury, illness or death on the job.
  • New and worsening hazards such as workplace violence, heat and infectious disease must be addressed to reduce their growing threat to workplace safety and well-being.
  • Job safety agencies have been flat-funded for years, not even keeping up with inflation. Employees and resources have shrunk as responsibilities have grown.
  • The OSH Act is more than 50 years old now and needs updates, particularly to its whistleblower programs and protections, and to strengthen criminal prosecution and penalties.
  • Workplace injuries and illnesses remain underreported and costly, and the way data reporting has changed, obscuring the true scope of these problems.

The 256-page report presents extensive data to support the findings, but these 10 facts reveal what they uncovered about the state of workplace safety in the U.S.

1. Black and Latino Workers Are Put at Greater Risk

Latino workers face the greatest risk of dying at work — their job fatality rates are 24% higher than the overall average, while Black workers have fatality rates 14% higher. In 2022, 734 Black workers died on the job, the highest number in at least 20 years.

 “Death on the Job” cites a recent North Carolina study in explaining these mortality rate disparities: Segregation by race into more hazardous industries and occupations plays a substantial role.

To combat these rising rates, the report calls for targeted OSHA enforcement and training programs in workplaces and industries with greater density of these of demographics to help reduce job fatalities and improve working conditions,.

2. Roadway Collisions Are the Leading Cause of Death at Work

Roadway collisions remain the leading cause of workplace deaths, responsible for 2,066 or 38% of all fatalities in 2022. The next leading cause of death — falls, slips and trips — claimed 865 workers’ lives, or 16% of total deaths. Violence and exposure to harmful substances/environments are close behind, with each accounting for 15% of overall deaths.

3. Workplace Violence, Heat Illness and Infectious Disease Are Growing Threats

The report advocates for new OSHA standards to address workplace violence, heat illness and infectious diseases.

While the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the need for an infectious disease standard, workplace violence and heat illness have been growing insidiously.

Over the past 30 years, heat stress has killed approximately 1,000 workers and caused nearly 33,000 serious lost-time injuries and illnesses, according to BLS, and those numbers are rising. In 2022, BLS reported 43 work-related fatalities from heat exposure, a 19% increase from 2021. Hot working conditions contribute to other injuries due to sweat, fogging personal protective equipment, dizziness and hot tools and equipment.

Workplace violence is also on the rise, after decreasing for decades until 2011, when the rate increased 41% in one year. Since then, the injury rate associated with workplace violence has remained at 3.8 or higher and is now 4.3 per 10,000 workers, the majority of whom work in healthcare, social assistance and educational services. Women workers experienced 66% of these serious injuries.

4. Fatality Data Reporting Rules Obscure Information

In 2020 (starting with 2019 data), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) updated its disclosure methodology policy on fatalities, resulting in less descriptive data than it had published under the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

According to the report, this makes it impossible to “stratify deaths in one occupation by certain demographics like country of origin or gender, workplace homicides by type of weapon used or by perpetrator, unintentional overdose deaths by different industries.” It's now harder to glean important insight on trends in workplace safety, even as data collection and analysis grow.

5. OSHA’s Jurisdiction Doubled as Its Resources Declined

In March 2024, Congress passed legislation that appropriated OSHA a budget of $632 million, level funding from the previous year, but lower than the rate of inflation. Under OSHA’s current budget, the agency has enough to spend $3.93 to protect each worker it is required to protect under the OSH Act.

Federal OSHA also lacks enough inspectors to carry out its duties. In 2023, the agency had enough compliance officers to inspect workplaces in its jurisdiction once every 186 years. If that isn’t sobering enough, when AFL-CIO first issued its “Death on the Job” report, federal OSHA had enough inspectors to inspect workplaces every 84 years.

This leaves investigations lacking as well. Federal OSHA inspected the workplace in 40% of formal complaints and 20% of informal complaints.

While state plan agencies have fared better with growing ranks, they still have limited personnel. Between federal and state agencies, there are currently 1,875 inspectors responsible for enforcing the safety and health regulations at more than 11.5 million workplaces, which translates to one inspector responsible for every 80,014 workers.

While the Biden administration has shored up the number of federal OSHA inspectors from an all-time low in 2019, fully staffed the agency’s head office for the first time since the Obama administration and requested a 3.5% increase in OSHA funding for FY 2025, the agency still has much ground to cover to close the gap between its responsibilities and its ability to perform them, the report concludes.

6. Monetary Penalties for OSHA Violations Remain Weak

Penalties for OSHA violations have always been relatively low, “due to statutory limitations and enforcement policies that prioritize the settlement of cases to achieve more expedient abatement of hazards, rather than imposing the maximum fines,” the report says.

In 2023, the average penalty for a serious violation under federal OSHA was $4,597, compared with an average penalty of $4,354 for serious violations in 2022. In FY 2023, the average penalty for a serious violation for state OSHA plans combined remained lower, at $2,406; in 2022, it was $2,221.

This increase is due in part to a 2015 law that allowed OSHA to raise maximum penalties by approximately 80% (the amount of inflation since the last time OSHA penalties were increased in 1990) and to regularly update penalties to account for future inflation.

This raised the maximum penalty for serious violations to $16,131, and for willful and repeat violations to $161,323.

According to OSHA inspection data, the average total penalty in a fatality case in 2023 was $20,996 for federal and state OSHA plans combined.

7. Few OSHA Violation Cases Are Prosecuted

According to information provided by the Department of Labor, since the passage of the OSH Act in 1970, only 137 cases have been referred for prosecution.

By comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency opened 199 criminal cases related to federal environmental laws in 2023 alone. In 74% of the criminal cases charged, an individual defendant was prosecuted, and those prosecutions generated a 100% conviction rate.

“The aggressive use of criminal penalties for enforcement of environmental laws, and the real potential for jail time for corporate officials, serve as a powerful deterrent,” the report says.

Criminal penalty provisions in the OSH Act are limited to willful violations that result in a worker’s death — endangerment or serious injury aren’t covered — or where false statements are made in required reported. These are limited to misdemeanors.

Contrast that with federal environmental laws, where criminal penalties apply in cases where there is simply “knowing endangerment,” and the law makes such violations felonies.

8. The OSH Act’s Whistleblower Provisions Need Revision

One of OSHA’s key responsibilities is to enforce the anti-retaliation provisions of the OSH Act, but those efforts are often constrained by limited resources — for example, the number of workers alleging retaliation for raising safety concerns during the pandemic rose and the agency was assigned more statutes to enforce — without additional funding. The total number of cases, under all statutes, received by OSHA’s whistleblower program in 2023 was 3,243, up from the 2,755 received in 2022.

But the larger problem is the OSH Act itself, which has not kept up with protections included in other whistleblower statutes.

  • The OSH Act provides only 30 days to file a discrimination complaint, compared with the 180 days provided by several other laws.
  • The act provides no opportunity for interim reinstatement for workers while the case is being resolved, nor a separate right of action for the complainant to pursue the case on their own. During this time, workers are in limbo, with no recourse or redress for discriminatory actions. Other whistleblower statutes provide these rights.

9. Workplace Injuries and Illnesses Are Underreported and Costly

In 2022, more than 3.5 million workers across all industries, including 2.8 million in the private sector, experienced work-related injuries and illnesses that were voluntarily reported by employers, a rate of 2.7 per workers. It is 81% higher in the state and local public sector, which reported a combined injury rate of 4.9 per 100 workers.

But the true toll is estimated to be between two and three times greater, or 5.6 million to 8.4 million injuries or illnesses a year. Research shows that one-third to two-thirds of work-related injuries and illnesses are not captured in the BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. This is driven by several factors, including:

  • Some employees are reluctant to report injuries due to fear of retaliation, incentive programs that penalize workers who report injuries and drug testing programs for workplace injuries.
  • Not all injuries or illnesses are appropriately attributed to the workplace.
  • Some states don’t report any data.
  • Certain injuries are excluded from the survey’s scope, such as those among self-employed individuals.

To better understand the impact of these injuries and illnesses — reported or not — Liberty Mutual Insurance launched a household survey to collect information through interviews, resulting in the 2023 Workplace Safety Index.

It estimated the employer cost of the most disabling workplace injuries at more than $58 billion a year — more than $1 billion per week. The top five injury causes that account for 62.7% of the total cost burden:

  • Overexertion involving outside sources (handling objects)
  • Falls on the same level
  • Falls to a lower level
  • Struck by object or equipment (being hit by objects)
  • Other exertions or bodily reactions (awkward postures)

10. Workers Cover the Cost of Their Injuries — And Those Costs Vary

A comprehensive 2011 study of government data found that workers’ compensation covered only 21% of the direct and indirect costs of injury and illness, with 13% borne by private health insurance, 11% by the federal government and 5% by state and local governments.

But workers and their families bore the most significant cost burden at 50%. Workers’ incomes are also impacted long-term; a 2011 study found that injured workers’ incomes are, on average, nearly $31,000 lower over 10 years than had they not suffered an injury.

One major contributor to the severe loss of income is the gross deficiencies and inequities in the workers’ compensation system, according to a 2015 ProPublica and National Public Radio investigative report cited by the researchers. Since 2003, legislators in 33 states have passed laws reducing benefits or limiting eligibility, leading to wide variance in benefits. For example, in 2015, the maximum compensation for loss of an eye was $261,525 in Pennsylvania, but only $27,280 in Alabama.

Fifteen workers die each day in the U.S. from job injuries, but investing in occupational safety agencies like OSHA, keeping up with evolving hazards and making a commitment to workplace safety can reduce that number in time.

Additional Data Points

  • More than 300 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions in 2022 (this includes those who die from illness and injury).
  • Fifteen workers die each day from job injuries.
  • The number of workers killed on the job at ages 20-24 increased 12% to 323 fatalities in 2022 from 289 fatalities in 2020.
  • More than 5,000 workers were killed on the job in the United States in 2022.
  • An estimated 120,000 workers died from occupational diseases.
  • The job fatality rate increased again to 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2022.
  • Black workers’ job fatality rate was the highest it has been in nearly 15 years — 4.2 per 100,000 workers.
  • Latino workers’ job fatality rate increased again to 4.6 per 100,000 workers — meaning they continued to face the greatest risk of dying on the job out of all workers at 24% higher than the national average; the rate marked a 24% increase over the past decade.
  • The rate of serious workplace violence injuries has increased to 4.3 per 10,000 workers.
  • The cost of job injuries is estimated at $174 billion to $348 billion a year.
  • The most dangerous industries are agriculture (including forestry, fishing and hunting), mining (including quarrying and oil and gas extraction), transportation and warehousing, construction, and wholesale trade.
  • Among the industries with the greatest reported injury and illness rates in 2022 were nursing and residential care facilities and hospitals.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders from repetitive motion injuries continue to be a major problem, accounting for 28% of all serious work-related injuries and illnesses in private industry.
  • States with the highest fatality rates in 2022 were:
    • Wyoming (12.7 per 100,000 workers)
    • North Dakota (9.8 per 100,000 workers)
    • Mississippi (6.9 per 100,000 workers)
    • New Mexico (6.8 per 100,000 workers)
    • West Virginia (6.8 per 100,000 workers)
    • Louisiana (6.4 per 100,000 workers)



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