07/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Many More Must Die?

Over the course of the past three weeks, 32 U.S. coal miners have died in three separate mining disasters. As a former coal miner and the son and grandson of coal miners, the tragedy of their deaths is close to my heart. But as an American, the catastrophe of 151 workers' lives lost everyday in this country, on the job and through occupational diseases, cuts me to the bone.

The 2010 AFL-CIO report, "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect," shows that well into the 21st century, employers in this nation still are failing on a massive scale to ensure those who toil for them stay healthy--and alive.

In 2008, 5,214 workers were killed on the job -- an average of 14 workers every day -- and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.6 million work-related injuries were reported, but our study finds the true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater -- some 9 million to 14 million job injuries each year.

Eight years of neglect and inaction by the Bush administration seriously eroded safety and health protections. Standards were repealed, withdrawn or blocked. Major hazards were not addressed. The Obama administration is returning the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to their mission to protect workers' safety and health. The president has appointed strong, pro-worker safety and health advocates to head the agencies -- Dr. David Michaels at OSHA and Joe Main at MSHA.

The administration is moving forward with new standards on silica, cranes and derricks, infectious diseases and coal dust and strengthening enforcement. The Obama administration has increased the job safety budget and hired hundreds of new inspectors, restoring the funding and staffing cuts made during the Bush administration.

These are great and much-needed improvements. Now, the Obama administration and Congress must take a serious look at updating the 40-year-old Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Congress should pass the Protecting America's Workers Act to extend the law's coverage to workers currently excluded, strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violations by employers who break the law, enhance anti-discrimination protections and strengthen the rights of workers, unions and victims.

Here's why it's needed. Right now, OSHA penalties are too low to deter violations. The average penalty for a serious violation of the law in fiscal year (FY) 2009 was $965 for federal OSHA and $781 for the state plans. Even in cases of worker fatalities, penalties are incredibly weak. For FY 2009, the median initial total penalty in fatality cases investigated by federal OSHA was $6,750, with the median penalty after settlement $5,000.

Since the OSH Act was passed in 1970, more than 360,000 workers have died on the job--but only 79 cases have been prosecuted, and altogether, the people to blame served a total of 89 months in jail.

Here in the United States, you can get more jail time for harassing a burro on federal land than for killing a worker. Willful violation of workplace safety laws that kills a worker carries a maximum jail term of six months for a first offender. It's a year for burro harassment.

Improvements in the Mine Safety and Health Act also are necessary to give MSHA more authority to shut down dangerous mines and close loopholes that enable employers to endlessly delay enforcement of violations. The new administration at MSHA also must strongly enforce the MINER Act, passed in 2006 in the wake of the 12 miners killed at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia. And as the Mine Workers is urging, hearings on mine tragedies, like the one that claimed 29 workers' lives at the Massey-owned mine, must be public.

Creating the 11 million jobs we need in this country to get workers back to work means ensuring these jobs are good jobs -- those that not only pay family-supporting wages and offer health care and retirement security -- but those that ensure when workers leave home in the morning, they'll return uninjured that night.

Every year on April 28, union members and workers around the nation commemorate Workers Memorial Day. April 28 was selected because that's the date the OSH Act was signed into law. This year, we took part in a ceremony to dedicate the National Workers Memorial at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. The recently completed memorial features granite benches and brick pavers engraved with the name of union members killed on the job.

Pointing toward the bricks and benches that family members and co-workers have engraved with the names of those killed on the job, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said:

Every brick represents not just a worker lost--but a family left behind, a wife without a husband, a child without a mother, a mother without a son.

The nation's death toll for workers killed while doing their job should cut all Americans to the bone. Let's take action now to stop the slaughter.