Each year, more than 5,000 U.S. workers die from workplace trauma, including preventable incidents such as drowning in a trench, falling from a height, or a collision with machinery. An additional 95,000 are estimated to die every year from long-term exposure to hazards such as asbestos, silica, and other toxic substances; these deaths are not always recorded as workplace related and are typically not investigated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or other agencies.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, an unknown number of workers have died from workplace exposure to the virus. Neither OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control, or any other public agency is tracking workplace COVID-19 fatalities.
Earlier this month, OSHA’ issued updated guidance on working with families which includes guidance on communicating about inspections, findings, and the closing of investigations.
Leaders of workplace safety organizations have welcomed the new guidance to improve communications with surviving family members when the agency investigates workplace fatalities.
“This is an important step in the right direction,” said Holly Shaw-Hollis, who lost her husband, Scott Shaw, to a preventable fall from a barge in Philadelphia in 2002. “I know first hand that a sudden, shocking death in the workplace is a terrible experience for surviving family members. In the past, communication with OSHA has not always been consistent following these tragedies, at a time when families need answers and solid information.”
Shaw-Hollis serves on the board of directors for the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH).
“When a preventable workplace tragedy strikes, most families are unprepared. Often, family member victims have never dealt with OSHA or any kind of investigation before,” said Tonya Ford, executive director of United Memorial and Support for Workplace Families (USMWF). Ford’s uncle, Bobby Fitch, died in a preventable incident at Archer Daniels Midland in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2009. “This kind of guidance, reminding everyone that the needs of survivors have to be considered during the entire process, can hopefully set the right tone for getting families the help they need to get through a terrible ordeal.”
“Understanding and respecting the needs of families is incredibly important,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of National COSH. “To prevent tragedies from happening in the first place, we also need action from Congress, to update our safety laws to cover more workers, with tougher penalties for safety violations and forceful protection against retaliation by employers.”
The National Agenda for Worker Safety and Health, developed by workers, unions, safety advocates, and worker organizations convened by National COSH, is available for download.