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North Carolina Under-Reported Worker Deaths And Ignored Multiple Workplace Safety Violations

By Aviva Shen  

"North Carolina Under-Reported Worker Deaths And Ignored Multiple Workplace Safety Violations"

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A memorial for killed workers in Raleigh, NC. (Credit: Chuck Liddy, News & Observer)

The number of North Carolinians who died at work in 2012 is likely more than three times the original number reported by the state Labor Department. While the state estimated 35 worker fatalities last year, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) put the number at 150.

Released in the wake of the deadly Texas fertilizer plant explosion enabled by massive regulatory failure on the state and federal levels, COSH’s report holds North Carolina’s weak workplace regulations accountable for these 150 deaths. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration covers workplace safety in about half the states, North Carolina uses a far more lenient state program.

In one of the highlighted cases, 39-year-old Luis Martinez died in a trench cave-in while installing a water line at NC State University. The trench cave-in could have been prevented with the use of proper equipment like a trench box that supports the sides. Yet the state essentially ignored repeated violations by Martinez’s employer for years before his death:

• August 22, 2007: As part of a planned inspection, NC OSHA finds that J.F. Wilkerson has violated trench safety standards and assesses a fine of $1,175. But the penalty is reduced to zero as part of an “informal settlement” with the company.

• November 14, 2007: After a worker files a complaint of unsafe conditions on the company’s jobsite, NC OSHA investigates and finds five serious violations. The company is fined $7,920 but the penalty is reduced to a paltry $1,820.

• February 23, 2011: Another worker files a complaint of unsafe conditions on a J.F. Wilkerson jobsite. NC OSHA inspects but does not cite the company for any violations.

• November 19, 2012: Unsafe conditions persist at the worksite and Luis Martinez is killed. NC OSHA’s investigation is still in process.

NC OSHA’s fines for companies that violate workplace safety standards are far lower than federal penalties. Repeat offenders pay just $1,906 in North Carolina, while they would pay $7,487 in a state covered by federal OSHA.

While the federal agency’s protections are generally stronger than state programs, so-called “pro-business” lawmakers have worked hard to hobble OSHA. The agency is already desperately underfunded and so over-extended that many workplaces have avoided inspection for nearly a century. As sequestration cuts are implemented, OSHA will lose another $564.8 million and will likely cut 1,200 workplace inspections.

Even without budget cuts, OSHA’s existing protections have already fallen short. COSH also released a national report on worker fatalities estimating that 13 Americans die at work every day, while countless others contract serious illnesses from exposure to harmful chemicals or excessive heat. Immigrant workers have the highest rate of deaths, as employers routinely threaten them with deportation if they speak out against the dangerous conditions. However, the Texas fertilizer plant explosion seems to have served as a wake-up call for many Americans. A majority now support tougher enforcement of existing regulations, while 44 percent believe current workplace safety regulations are not strict enough.

The recently reintroduced Protecting America’s Workers Act is one attempt to remedy the dangerously wide loopholes in existing workplace safety standards. The bill would bolster OSHA’s reporting, inspection and enforcement practices, expand federal protections to state, county, municipal and U.S. government employees, and increase whistleblower protections.

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