Dying to Work

Death and Injury in the American Workplace, Jonathan D. Karmel, Cornell University Press.

Dying To Work Jonathan Karmel

“Are we doing everything possible to protect American workers from death and injury? And, if not, why not?” Those are the overarching questions posed by Jonathan Karmel—owner of the Karmel Law Firm—in his book, “Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace.”

In the opening chapters, “Dying to Work” relates the challenges of achieving a safe workplace—including a brief history of workplace safety in the U.S., a discussion in which The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire features prominently. Karmel goes on to highlight the corporate and political forces that are leading the fight against worker safety legislation, and also recommends specific reforms designed to improve worker health and safety in the U.S.  

Most interestingly, though, the book features a collection of stories about workers who were killed or injured on the job. As one might expect, there are subsections devoted to risks of being an electrician, logger, oil & gas worker and coal miner, with corresponding horror stories for each occupation. 

But it’s the personal experiences of grocery clerks and hotel housekeepers—two other surprisingly high-risk occupations—that are the real page-turners. For example, there’s the story of a young woman, employed by one this country’s major grocery store chains, who lost her right arm in a meat grinder. And the story of another woman, employed by the same company, that was buried alive by more than a hundred cases of bottled water and died of “mechanical asphyxiation due to crushing beneath weight.”  

The Trump Administration and Worker Health & Safety    

Of course, one can’t help but notice that this book was published at a particularly relevant time—that is, little more than a year after the election of Donald Trump. As such, “this book stands as a document of the state of worker safety programs in place at the end of Barack Obama’s administration,” which may be a “high-water mark,” as the author puts it. 

“With the emergence of a strong anti-regulatory agenda and the deconstruction of the administrative state, advocates for safe workplaces now fear an end to the regulatory progress made in the Obama administration to protect the health and safety of workers,” notes Karmel. No doubt advocates have good reason to fear regression. In fact, some of the very first actions taken by the Trump Administration were to repeal rules designed to make workers safer and employers more accountable. 

That’s one reason why “the prospects for continuing reform look dim,” offers Karmel. To be sure, it’s difficult to imagine how a less-well funded and resourced OSHA might fare. (At the moment there is just one federal or state inspector for every 74,760 workers).  

Yet one way we can continue to make progress—and move away from the tendency to push the blame for death and injury onto workers—is to change the narrative, according to the author. “There needs to be a real shift in how workplace deaths and injuries are described, and we must start by holding accountable those persons responsible for the deaths and injuries that are not accidents,” offers Karmel, noting that this “requires a more heightened awareness than currently exists: that all workers to one degree or another, are daily exposed to preventable workplace hazards.”  

Yet it is an achievable goal. “A new awareness begins with proximity and with using the pronoun ‘we.’ Workplace health and safety must become a shared responsibility, because we are all at risk,” concludes the author. “The stories in this book are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Tragically, there is an endless supply of stories about death and injury in the American workplace, enough to fill dozens of books. And, sadly, all these deaths and injuries were preventable. There are no accidents.” 

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