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NC job deaths undercounted, study finds

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Far more workers die on the job in North Carolina than the state reports, according to a new study by workplace safety advocates.

While the N.C. Department of Labor reported that just 35 workers were killed on the job in 2012, the report by the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health estimates that the true number is more than three times higher.

That’s chiefly because the state doesn’t count deaths due to vehicle accidents and workplace violence, or fatalities among the self-employed.

The report, titled “North Carolina Workers Dying for a Job,” also concludes that penalties are too low to deter unsafe working conditions and that “even repeat offenders get off easy.”

Many of the findings echo those of a 2008 Observer investigation into workplace safety in the poultry industry.

“Clearly the absolute number of deaths has gone down…,” said NCOSH Executive Director Tom O’Connor, who wrote the report. “But there are still way too many people dying in easily preventable deaths.”

N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has pointed to the state’s declining workplace injury, illness and death rates as evidence that her approach to workplace safety is working.

“This has been achieved through increased education and training, consultation, and partnerships and alliances with employers and employees in the private and public sectors,” Berry said in a statement Monday.

In its reports to the public, the state labor department includes only those deaths it has jurisdiction to investigate under law, agency officials say.

Other report findings:

• Disproportionately large numbers of Latino workers continue to die on the job in North Carolina. While Latinos make up about 9 percent of the state’s population, they accounted for about 28 percent of those killed at work in 2011 and 2012, in cases where an ethnicity was noted. One likely reason for the disparity: Many of the state’s most dangerous occupations rely heavily on Latino workers.

• Workplace violence is a significant cause of death in the state. NCOSH identified 13 people killed on the job due to violence in 2012, but said the actual number is likely much higher.

• More than 740 people died on the job in the five years ending in 2011. Transportation incidents were the most common cause, accounting for 291 deaths. While transportation deaths aren’t counted in the N.C. numbers, O’Connor said they should be because employers contribute to such accidents when they put excessive pressure on employees to get quickly from place to place.

• The state’s workplace fatality rate – 3.7 per 100,000 fulltime workers – has dropped significantly over the past decade. That rate is roughly equal to the national average.

• Employers who repeatedly run afoul of workplace safety rules “are still issued only a slap on the wrist.” Fines in such cases averaged $1,906 in North Carolina, as compared to $7,487 by federal OSHA.

Federal OSHA oversees workplace safety in about half the states. The remaining states, including both Carolinas, run their own programs.

History of problems

The report tells the story of 39-year-old Luis Javier Martinez, who lost his life in November, after the trench he was working in at N.C. State University caved in.

Martinez’s employer – J.F. Wilkerson Contracting, a Morrisville company that specializes in laying water and sewer lines – has paid few fines despite a history of safety violations.

In August 2007, N.C. OSHA cited the company for violating trench safety standards and assessed a fine of $1,175. But the penalty was reduced to zero as part of an informal settlement.

Two months later, after a worker complained of unsafe conditions, OSHA found three serious violations and proposed a $6,100 fine. The penalty was reduced to $1,820.

In February 2011, after another worker complained of unsafe conditions, OSHA inspected but did not cite the company for any violations.

Nineteen months later, Martinez was working inside a trench at the Raleigh campus when an earthen wall collapsed, burying him in dirt. N.C. OSHA is still investigating that case.

Department officials note that when a company contests a stiff penalty, it doesn’t have to correct safety hazards until the case is resolved. So the agency sometimes reduces penalties in the interest of getting safety problems corrected quickly, they say.

“There is no correlation or evidence to show that higher penalties create safer and healthier workplaces,” an agency spokeswoman wrote. “Commissioner Berry would rather see businesses spend their hard-earned money abating hazards … than writing a check to the government.”

In the second 2007 case, the department dropped one citation when the employer presented evidence that no violation had occurred, an agency spokesman said.

In the 2011 case, inspectors spotted no violations, the spokesman said.

Company President Joe Wilkerson declined to talk about the firm’s safety history, but said officials there don’t believe they could have done anything to prevent the accident that killed Martinez.

“It was a most unusual incident,” he said.

Minimal fines

A 2010 audit by the U.S. Labor Department found that North Carolina downplayed serious safety problems, issued weak fines to violators and failed to properly handle whistleblower complaints.

In its 2008 workplace safety investigation, the Observer found that weak enforcement, minimal fines and declining inspections have allowed companies nationwide to ignore hazards that can kill and injure workers.

The newspaper’s investigation also found that many violators in North Carolina get off easy.

Average fines for serious violations in North Carolina were less than half the national average, the Observer found.

Alexander: 704-358-5060
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