Northwest Labor Press April 17, 1998

Not all who died at work will be remembered April 28

A bell rings. A candle is lit and then extinguished. A black armband is pulled up above the elbow. A monument is unveiled.
On April 28, Workers Memorial Day, workers across the country will stop to remember those who lost their lives on the Job --- and renew their commitment to prevent deaths, illnesses and injuries caused by workplace hazards.

In Oregon, 100 workers were killed on job in 1997, up from 85 deaths in 1996 and 73 fatalities in 1995, according to the federal Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI).

The job-related death toll is much higher than "official statistics" released annually the State of Oregon. In a few weeks the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS) will announce a record-low job fatality rate of 44 workers in 1997. Last year it reported just 54 job fatalities while in 1995 it announced a record low 48 job-related deaths.

But that number is based solely on accepted claims for employees covered under Oregon workers' compensation system. Not counted in the official death toll, for example, was Portland police office Thomas Jeffries, who died in the line of duty in 1997. Because he is covered under a disability plan with the City of Portland, Jeffries is not counted in the "official list" of workers who died on the job.

Dockworkers, fire fighters, federal workers, out-of-state workers who die in Oregon accidents, persons who are self-employed, to name a few categories, also are excluded from official state fatality statistics simply because they are not covered under Oregon workers' compensation laws.

"How is it even possible that a police officer gunned down in the line of duty is not recorded as a work-related fatality by the state," asked Brad Witt, secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

But even those who fall under state comp laws don't always make the list.

Take, for example, Fausto Valdivia. The 24-year-old man was killed at a plant in McMinnville in January 1997 when his hand was caught in a machine that molds hot plastic into corrugated pipe, and he was dragged against the machine and crushed. He died on the scene.

Following a four-month investigation, the Oregon-Occupational Safety and Health Department (OR-OSHA) concluded that Valdivia had reached into the machine while it was running to adjust part of the mechanism, reported the McMinnville News-Register in an eight-paragraph article published May 31, 1997.

The company, Plastics Services and Products Inc., was fined $5,100 because it had no "lock-up/tag-out" procedure for making sure machines are turned off during adjustments. OR-OSHA also found the company had failed to establish a safety committee and had provided an employee handbook written in English, although most of its employees spoke Spanish or were not fluent in English.

According to the OR-OSHA report cited in the News-Register article, the plant manager told an investigator that the employees' inability to understand the handbook was not the company's problem, that it was the workers' responsibility to find someone who could interpret it for them.

The News-Register article said the company was considering an appeal.

Eleven months later, Valdivia is nowhere to be found on the state's official fist of 44 workers killed on the job. When asked why, OR-OSHA said it had no record of a workers' compensation claim ever being filed on his behalf.

DCBS spokesman Steve Corson said it was possible Valdivia had no dependents and, therefore, no one filed a comp claim. He later recanted that explanation because all employers are required to file accident reports. He said OR-OSHA would look into it.

CFOI Data Never Used

CFOI has been collecting data for five years and provides the most complete count of fatal work injuries available because it uses diverse state and federal data sources to identify, verify and profile fatal work injuries using death certificates, workers' compensation records and reports to federal and state agencies. The census is conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor with cooperation from state occupational safety and health departments.

Yet for five years the State of Oregon has never released that data to the media.

Last summer when three iron workers were killed in a parking garage construction collapse at Portland International Airport, the Oregonian published a series of health and safety articles, complete with graphs documenting "Oregon workplace deaths." The article said: "Workplace fatalities in Oregon have steadily declined since 1979, hitting a low in 1995 before inching upward last year."

Last April the newspaper (as did every media outlet in the state that ran a story) reported that 1996 "was the second-lowest year on record for work-related deaths" with 54. The source for the information --- DCBS.

But it's simply not true.

CFOI's 1997 workplace death tally of 100 is the most recorded since 1990 when 111 Oregonians died on the job.

"Most people would probably agree the most relevant number is the number of people who actually died on the job (not just compensable claims)," said DCBS spokesman Corson. He said it was "continued continuity" that has moved the state to announce only accepted compensable claims as the official number of job-related deaths. "We've been doing it that way since 1943," he said.

The AFL-CIO’s Witt was "absolutely amazed" at the difference in statistics. "I think it shows that the state’s numbers don’t accurately represent the carnage taking place in Oregon's workplaces," he said. "It is significant to note that one set of numbers indicate a decline in workplace deaths while another reveals a large increase."

Workers’ Comp Rates Drop

Of course, with lower job-related deaths and accidents comes lower workers’ compensation premium rates, Witt said. Eight years ago Oregon had the sixth highest workers' comp premium rates in the country. Oregon lawmakers passed several controversial "reforms" to the comp system which resulted in eight years of declining premiums. Between 1991 and 1996 the pure premium for workers' compensation in Oregon dropped a total of 43.9 percentage points, resulting in savings for businesses reaching into the billions. Oregon now ranks 34th in the country.

"We're right where we feel we should be," said OR-OSHA Administrator Peter DeLuca, speaking at a Portland luncheon April 7 sponsored by the Industrial Relations Research Association (IRRA). "We don't want to be the lowest, because it doesn't pay enough. Being the highest or near highest makes a difference, too, in attracting new business to the state."

OR-OSHA Inspections Down, Too

At a time when employment is growing and workplace deaths are rising, it might be considered odd that OR-OSHA is performing fewer inspections --- only 4,561 in 1997 --- the lowest number in 11 years.

"Yes, the number of inspections are down," DeLuca confirmed. "Inspections have slipped during the course of the year partly because of some restructuring within the department. We have a slightly different management structure. It is something we need to fix."

OR-OSHA has 80 compliance officers (more per capita than any other state, according to DeLuca) and 40 consultants.

At the IRRA luncheon, Deluca talked about measuring success "not so much by how many inspections we do a year, but rather by the outcomes in establishing safer workplaces."

DeLuca said he has brought a new approach to the agency, maintaining that "cooperation and collaboration are superior methods than trying to force someone to do something. If we can agree on an approach to solve a problem, then we will solve a problem. If I try to force something down an employer's throat, that will last about as long as I'm looking."

DeLuca doesn't want visits by OR-OSHA to be a negative experience for employers. "We see each compliance visit as being a learning experience for the employer," he said.

In that regard, OR-OSHA has come up with some unique cooperative settlement agreements with employers.

He said the agency agreed to let a lumber company take the fine it was assessed for safety violations and plow it into safety equipment and programs. OSHA will remain "continuously involved with the company to help it build a safer workplace," he reported.

DeLuca also mentioned a plant on the coast in which two workers were killed. Instead of paying a fine to OSHA for safety violations, the company and union agreed to use the money to set up a trust fund for annual scholarships in the community under the dead workers' names.

"The company and union jointly administer the fund and the scholarships are a constant reminder to the community of the importance of maintaining a safe workplace," he said.

OR-OSHA's new approach doesn't mean the agency is slacking on enforcement, DeLuca insisted. "I believe firmly that we must take strong measures when its called for."

Last year OR-OSHA assessed $3,775,230 in fines for safety and health violations, including a record $1.52 million in the Portland airport accident.

In 1996, OR-OSHA issued penalties totaling $2,311,295. After appeals and reductions it collected $1,686,607.

DeLuca said citations are issued to make workplaces more safe, not to get money out of employers, although in many cases money is what it takes to get an employer's attention.

"It is vital that the agency be willing, ready and able to deal seriously with serious offenders," he said.

The Secret CFOI List

Because every April 28 organized labor memorializes workers who have died on the job at a ceremony in which their names are read at a church service and added to "the wall" of names that appears in this newspaper, this year the Labor Press asked for --- and received --- the CFOI list.

Two days later DCBS called to say that the names on the CFOI list were strictly confidential and could not be published. The Labor Press tried to get permission from the BLS to use the names --- at least for the memorial service --- but again was turned down.

"The list is strictly confidential," said Bob Finch of the BLS regional office in San Francisco emphasizing that confidentiality is a key reason that the information can be gathered in the first place.

Corson said that when the state releases its job-related death report for 1997 it will, for the first time, mention the fatality number from the CFOI list.

Comparing Oregon Job-Related Deaths 1985-1997*



Disabling Claims



State Figures CFOI/NIOSH*





105 *





105 *





105 *





105 *














































Note: State figures are work-related fatalities based on claims accepted by the Workers Compensation Division of the Oregon Department of Consumer & Business Services. * Average based on data from the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Statistics from the federal Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Employment figures based on data from the Oregon Employment Department. Increase in employment is partly due to a change in methodology. Disabling claims include fatal cases. *1997 figures are preliminary and are subject to change.