There are the deaths that make the news:
Then there are those who die without fanfare, many of them barely a blip on the public’s radar: no headlines, no obituaries, sometimes not even a report to the federal agency that tracks worker deaths.
But the people who died on the job — at least 116 since March 2018 across Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey — are a reminder of the vulnerability that many workers experience.
As part of Workers Memorial Day, which is April 28 every year, worker safety nonprofit PhilaPOSH assembles a list of all the work-related deaths in the preceding 12 months and honors the workers in a procession down Columbus Boulevard.
The number of deaths on PhilaPOSH’s list has remained steady over the last dozen years, said executive director Nicole Fuller, though she noted that with advances in education and training, the number should be going down. Also, the list is not comprehensive.
PhilaPOSH gets data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but the federal agency covers only private-sector employees, leaving out public-sector workers, independent contractors, and anyone else engaged in a more informal work arrangement.
That’s especially concerning in a time when an estimated one in five jobs in the United States is held by a worker under contract.
In the notoriously dangerous construction industry, many workers are illegally misclassified as independent contractors, which means deaths in that industry could be going untracked.
PhilaPOSH fills in OSHA’s gaps by searching for news of worker deaths, but it’s not a perfect system, and neither is OSHA’s data: “We have been known to have names on the list that they don’t have data on,” Fuller said.
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Other kinds of illnesses, such as stress-related heart disease, can also cause deaths — but it’s hard to determine whether those deaths were a direct result of the work.
On this Workers Memorial Day, the number of OSHA inspectors is at an all-time low, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). (There were 49 inspectors in charge of investigating safety conditions for Pennsylvania’s nearly 5.8 million workers, according to a 2019 AFL-CIO report, down from 57 in 2016, when the state had 5.6 million workers.)