By Dave Swenson
Most of us have safe jobs, and we really don’t have to worry much about workplace hazards. The likelihood of a worker in our modern economy getting hurt, maimed, or killed on the job is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago.
There are a lot of reasons for our collective workplace health, but by far the biggest factor was the passage and implementation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. That act, signed by Richard Nixon, required employers to provide and maintain a workplace that was free of environmental, mechanical, and other hazards. The law meant it was no more business as usual, and businesses had to literally clean up their acts. As would be expected, businesses hated OSHA. Workers hailed it, especially those doing dangerous work. In the end, as is the case with all good laws, society gained mightily.
When I was young, there were frequent news bulletins of coal mining disasters or factory explosions. Workers fell from scaffolds, high rises, or into pits. Workers were deafened on factory lines or by operating heavy machinery. Others suffered neurological or lung damage just doing their job. Black lung killed generations of coal miners. White lung felled shipbuilders, auto parts workers, asbestos miners, and chemical workers. High incidences of work related illnesses and injuries were tolerated as just another cost of doing business.
Except the costs were really not that high because businesses weren’t paying them, society was. Unless outright negligence could be determined, there were few federal or state regulations creating a duty of providing and maintaining a safe and secure work environment.
Our workplaces are now much safer. Federal and state oversight over the work environment has provided the necessary inspections, rules, and remedies for guiding the activities of employers and employees. Private insurers have worked aggressively with firms to incrementally lower workplace hazards, too. Modern businesses have become more and more safety conscious because, frankly, it’s good business in that it keeps all costs down and productivity high.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that 2008 occupational deaths were 23 percent lower than in the early 1990s. And as the number of workers increased strongly over that time, the fatality rate has fallen by a much higher percentage. There were 3.6 deaths per 100,000 full time worker equivalents (FTEs) in 2008. Workplace deaths are becoming very rare.
While modern farm machinery is fundamentally different than it was a generation ago, and ag-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses are a fraction of what they were when I was in my teens, farmers and farm workers still have the highest industrial fatality rates at just over 29 per 100,000 – eight times higher than the national average. Mining is second, and transportation workers have the third highest rates. Construction produces the most fatalities, but not the highest rate owing to the large number of people engaged in that trade.
By occupation, the three categories with the lowest job fatality rates are sales jobs at 1.9 per 100,000, professional jobs at .8, and office workers at .5 deaths per 100,000. The odds of someone like me, a teacher and a researcher, dying on the job are miniscule.
On February 18th, a man named Joseph Stack flew a private plane into an office building in Austin, Texas, that housed the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Over a dozen people, office workers and professionals were injured, some critically. One worker, Vernon Hunter, a Vietnam veteran nearing retirement was the lone fatality.
Some in the media labeled Stack a tax protestor, inferring that act was somehow a legitimate if not noble cause. Noble people do not kill innocent workers, terrorists do. His was a political statement designed to inflict damage on people who had only a symbolic relationship to his gripe. If that isn’t terrorism then nothing is.
And on March 1st, Hazmat crews investigated a suspicious white powder mailing at an IRS facility in Ogden, Utah. Separately, officials arrested a man in Denver and charged him with mailing white powder to several federal offices. Those acts are terrorism too. No question.
There is nothing the Occupational Safety and Health Act can do to protect any of us from the lunatics among us once they decide, in some outrageously dramatic manner, to kill or maim innocents or to get their twisted jollies by scaring decent working men and women because life, rules, society, or our democratic system has done them wrong.
So for a time, the most dangerous job in America might be working for the IRS.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and an extension-to-communities economics educator. He also teaches community and regional planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession.