In the toughest industries, the cardinal rule of prevention, “safety first,” often gets papered over by an unspoken law of the workplace: the most dangerous jobs are done by those who can’t afford safety. The hidden cost of the extra risks they bear quietly—the broken bones, severed thumbs and stained lungs—place an underlying drag on the most vulnerable segments of the economy. An analysis by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shows the toll society pays for employers’ and regulators’ malign neglect.
Changes in state-based workers’ compensation insurance programs have made it increasingly difficult for injured workers to receive the full benefits…to which they are entitled.… This cost-shift has forced injured workers, their families and taxpayers to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions.
The double injustice of paying for the physical suffering imposed by your employer is no accident; it’s calculated cruelty. The Workers’ Compensation system has been gradually eroded to limit employer liability, while disenfranchised, precarious workers often have little choice but to accept an inadequate award or none at all.
Guadalupe González struggled just to force her employer to recognize her injury, after she twisted her ankle badly while working her custodial job with the multinational contractor Sodexo in 2011. Though she had been injured on a cleaning shift while traversing the campus at Lasell College in Massachusetts and eventually needed surgery, she recalls, “The manager denied it, as well as the insurance company.… The manager was just saying that I was always complaining about something, and that’s how he tried to get out of it.”
González had to “complain” for months just to recover part of her lost income, but many injured workers have no one even to complain to. The rise of “outsourced” labor—temp work, independent contracting and other contingent jobs—and the misclassification of blue-collar workers as “independent contractors” has placed countless workers in an unregulated zone, cut off from benefits and full legal recourse against managers who aren’t officially employers.
With about “three million serious occupational injuries and illnesses” recorded annually, official estimates put “the cost of fatal and non-fatal work injuries at $198 billion” in 2012. Meanwhile countless injuries go unreported, and the impacts are often hidden and chronic, resulting in long-term sickness and death not attributed directly to work (try suing a company over cancer linked to decades-old asbestos exposures). Past workplace exposures to hazardous materials lead to an estimated 50,000 deaths each year.
Workers’ Compensation generally covers just one-fifth of occupational injury costs. Workers, their families and the public pay the rest: roughly 50 percent is paid out of pocket, private insurance covers 13 percent and underfunded welfare and care programs that make up the “safety net” absorb the remainder of the burden of unsafe jobs.