Report: Massachusetts Worker Deaths Hit Four-Year High

A new report documents the loss of 80 workers killed on the job in the Commonwealth in 2007. This is an increase of four from the previous year and the highest number of fatalities in the past four years. Many of these deaths could have been prevented had the employers instituted basic and often inexpensive safety measures.

“The findings are extremely disturbing,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the report’s co-author. “It’s not just the number, which is unacceptable. It’s also what’s behind the numbers – that so many of these men and women could have been with us today had their employer not given safety short shrift.”

“It is an absolute outrage that in this day and age, we have such a high number of lives lost on the job,” said Robert J. Haynes, President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “The 80 workplace deaths of 2007 represent great personal suffering for loved ones. We have come a long way in improving safety measures at work, but clearly there’s much more work to be done.”

The report released by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupation Safety and Health (MassCOSH) Dying for Work in Massachusetts: The Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts, comes on the eve of Workers Memorial Day. Every year on April 28, workers killed and injured on the job are remembered and calls renewed for improving workplace safety. This year, it was commemorated on the steps of the Massachusetts State House on April 29at noon.

In Massachusetts in 2007, the average fine assessed to an employer with OSHA violations resulting in the death of a worker was less than $5,000. The report also found that at OSHA’s current rate of inspection, it will take 121 years for the agency to complete inspections of all workplaces under its jurisdiction.

“It appears that some employers view fines as a cost of business,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

The report cites many workplace deaths. On the afternoon of August 30, 2007, Benedelson Ovalle Chavez, a 17-year old Lynn resident, fell 20 feet to his death while fixing the roof of a Salem church. Employed by the company for just two months, he had received no training nor fall protection. A recent immigrant from Guatemala, Chavez spoke no English, the report says. Benedelson’s employer, B.C. Construction, was fined $22,400 by OSHA for, among other violations, a repeat violation of fall protection requirements. The General Contractor, Olympic Painting and Roofing Company, a company with a long history of labor and safety violations, remains free of any charges.

On that same day, Richard Powers, 45, a Gloucester-based Beauport Ambulance company paramedic, collapsed and was found dead after retuning from a call. While the report suggests he was working back-to-back 24-hour shifts and stressful work conditions may have contributed to Powers’ death, the company's owner, John Morris, said this was not the case. "He was not on his second 24-hour shift in a row," Morris said. Powers' shifts were a day apart, said Morris, who added, "The working conditions up here [for his employees] are not stressful." He said Powers suffered from congestive heart failure, which was the cause of his death.

On October 26, 2007 Gary Gibbons, a 53 year-old service technician was killed on the job while attempting to repair a problem on Verizon phone lines. Gibbons was electrocuted while working in an elevated bucket near high voltage electrical wires. Gibbons' death – the fifth Verizon workplace fatality in 2 years – highlights persistent safety concerns raised by workers at the huge telecommunications company.

"It's no surprise there has been so many serious accidents and fatalities," said Gene McLaughlin, business manager of Local 2322 and plant chairman of System Council T-6 that covers Verizon's New England operations. "Management has begun stressing productivity over safety by pushing unreasonable increases in productivity on employees.”

The report highlights several issues of growing concern:

• Disproportionately killed on the job, immigrants accounted for 20 percent (16/80) of workplace fatalities, while their representation in the workforce was 16.97 percent in 2007. Immigrants suffer from poor working conditions, lack of training, employer exploitation coupled with fear of retaliation and deportation for speaking up about hazards.

• In all sectors of the economy, companies rush to increase profits at the expense of workers’ health and lives by downsizing, understaffing, overloading workers, extending hours of work, combining jobs, and contracting out. Misclassification – when employers treat employees as independent contractors – has enabled some employers to distance themselves from the dangerous conditions of a workplace – and the resulting injuries and deaths.

• Fishing claimed the lives of more workers in Massachusetts during 2000 - 2007 than any other single occupation. Commercial fishing has been found to be the most dangerous industry in the country.

The report calls for regulations on the state and federal level to be strengthened. These improvements would include protections for public employees, protection for immigrant workers, improvements in Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation, and comprehensive workplace safety programs.

“The fact that workers lost their lives as a result of employers neglecting basic safety measures is an absolute injustice,” remarked Haynes. “Our fight for good jobs, and for health and safety at work, will continue until all workers are able to go to make a living at work and return home with their lives, limbs, and health intact.”

The complete report can be viewed at www.masscosh.org or www.massaflcio.org

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