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The Disturbing Racial Realities Of Workplace Safety

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

Even before COVID-19, workplaces were deadly places for Black, Latinx, and Asian American Workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, released on December 16, shows shocking disparities along racial lines in worker fatality increases between 2015 and 2019.

It’s bad enough that worker deaths across the board have risen by 10%. What is more frightening is that where white worker deaths have risen by 1.7%, Latinx workers have seen a 20% increase; Black worker deaths have increased by 28%, and Asian American deaths have risen by 59%. That’s not a typo. Fifty-nine percent more Asian American workers died in 2019 than in 2015.

In a statement released by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health [“NCOSH”] on December 21, NCOSH co-executive director Jessica Martinez says “The answer lies in decades of racism and discrimination, with workers of color routinely being assigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.” The NCOSH statement notes that the BLS statistics do not account for COVID-19 deaths. Moreover, future statistics likely will not reflect the effect of COVID-19 on workplace fatalities because even though COVID-19 may be contracted at the workplace, death resulting from COVID-19 does not take place at work, so data collection will miss those fatalities. Meanwhile, the CDC reports that Black or African-American individuals are 2.8 times more likely than whites to die of COVID-19. 

On Day 1 of his new job, President Biden called upon OSHA to issue clear guidance on COVID-19 safety. OSHA responded with Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace, issued January 29, 2021. The guidance does not contain any surprises; many workplaces have already implemented many of OSHA’s recommendations by enforcing physical distancing, installing barriers, instituting face mask requirements, and implementing cleaning and disinfection procedures.

The OSHA guidance is non-binding, meaning it contains recommended COVID-19 safety procedures, but so far no one is required to abide by the guidance.However, the Biden administration has ordered OSHA to consider issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard [“ETS”] no later than March 15, 2021. A standard, unlike guidance, is enforceable, and an employer may face consequences for not abiding by it. If OSHA follows Biden’s recommendation, the ETS will likely include many of the measures that appear in the current guidance.

Which is a good start. But workplace safety experts interviewed by Safety and Health Magazine say that racial disparities in workplace safety won’t go away without significant structural change, including measures to eliminate workplace harassment, training inequities, and barriers to advancement. Organizations all over the country – including the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm – are participating in diversity and racial equity programming designed to help employers and workers recognize and examine unconscious biases, remove recruitment barriers, understand the racist history behind familiar structures and processes, and improve workplace communication – especially the listening part, which the safety experts say is one of the major barriers to equitable workplace safety.

The key to whether OSHA’s initiatives eliminate racial disparities in workplace safety is not just in the implementation of long-overdue COVID-19 safety guidance. It will have to do with how hard we work together to make sure no one gets left out when that guidance is implemented.

If you believe your workplace is more dangerous due to discrimination, it’s not a bad idea to contact an employment law attorney admitted to practice in your jurisdiction.  The attorney will help you determine what actions make sense for you to take to get and stay safe.

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