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Monday, December 27, 2021

The Covid Death Count No One Knows About

Workers Who Died from the Infection Remain Invisible to the Government


Sophia Foster-Dimino
Good news! Fake news? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the year 2020 also known as the year of Covid was a great year for worker safety.

2020 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) data released Thursday show, “There were 4,764 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2020, a 10.7% decrease from 5,333 in 2019.”  That’s the lowest number since 2013!

And if you only read the first few paragraphs and charts, you’d actually believe that 2020 a great year for workers; time to declare victory and go home.

But not so fast. Recork the champagne. One detail the bureau failed to examine — a failure only mentioned below the main headlines at the bottom of the first page of the press release —  was worker deaths due to Covid.

According to the bureau :

CFOI reports fatal workplace injuries only. These may include fatal workplace injuries complicated by an illness such as Covid. Fatal workplace illnesses not precipitated by an injury are not in scope for CFOI. CFOI does not report any illness-related information, including Covid.

That means if you were so sick with Covid that you got dizzy and fell off a ladder, your death was counted. Otherwise, you don’t count.

Removing the bureaucratese, what we are viewing here is a tragedy laid upon a tragedy: The thousands of workers who died bravely working through the greatest pandemic in American history are essentially invisible.

Why Do the Numbers Look Low

So why were the workplace fatality numbers down?  There was little work in 2020.

There were far fewer workers working in the most dangerous occupations such as construction and transportation. As I predicted last month when bureau released its report on occupational injuries and illnesses due to Covid-related shutterings, “It is highly likely that for the first time in many years, the bureau will report a decrease in work-related deaths.

“Despite the fact that more work-related deaths occurred in 2020 than any year in recent U.S. history, most Covid-related workplace deaths will be officially invisible.”

Of course, essential workers doing the most dangerous jobs during the height of the pandemic before vaccines arrived were not so lucky.

The rate for Hispanic workers went up from 4.2 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2019 to 4.5 in 2020.  The share of Hispanic or Latino workers killed on the job also continued to grow, increasing to 22.5% in 2020 from 20.4% in 2019.

How Many Workers Died and Where? Who Knows?

We have very little information on how many workers died of work-related Covid infections in most occupations. The ones with the best numbers are in health care and meatpacking.

Healthcare Workers

We have a more accurate idea of how many healthcare workers died from Covid than any other occupation, but even these numbers are grossly incomplete.  The Center for Disease Control reports a total of 3,031 healthcare workers died of Covid since the beginning of the pandemic. But it admits that death status is available for less than two-thirds of total reported cases. The extent of the undercount can be seen by the fact that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service, which requires staff and resident case and fatality reporting from long-term nursing care establishments, reports that 2157 Covid-related deaths just among staff in establishments that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

The 2,157 is from the beginning of Covid until this month. In 2020,  the government reported around 1,300 deaths of long-term care staff. Had those been counted, they would have reflected over 27% of total workplace deaths for 2020.

Meatpacking Workers

A recent report by the House Select Sub-Committee on the Corona Virus Crisis last month referenced documents on five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates. The firms represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States:

  • JBS USA Food Company (JBS)
  • Tyson Foods Inc. (Tyson)
  • Smithfield Foods (Smithfield)
  • Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. (Cargill)
  • National Beef Packing Co. LLC (National Beef)

The documents say, during the first year of the pandemic, at least 59,000 employees of these five meatpacking companies contracted Covid

That’s almost triple the 22,700 infections previously estimated for these companies. At least 269 of these companies’ employees died.

According to testimony from Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and a former senior official at OSHA during the Obama administration:

“More workers have died from COVID-19 in the last 18 months in the meat and poultry industry than died from all work-related causes in the industry in the last 15 years.”

What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us

The labor bureau is correct within the narrow confines of what CFOI is supposed to do: Count workplace injuries only), disease-related deaths—including those from Covid—are invisible.  We often cite BLS in claiming that 14 workers are killed in the job every day—5,333 in 2019.  

That’s a lot,  but the total number of work-related deaths included diseases caused by chemicals like asbestos, silica, various solvents and other communicable diseases, are likely 20 times that number.

The AFL-CIO notes in its annual Death on the Job report that most chronic workplace illness-related deaths are not detected until years after workers have been exposed to toxic chemicals and because occupational illnesses often are misdiagnosed and poorly tracked. There is no national comprehensive surveillance system for occupational illnesses. In total, about 275 workers die each day due to job injuries and illnesses.

There is no doubt that we are now experiencing the greatest workplace death toll in modern American history due to Covid.  We have much to learn about the real extent of that toll and how to prevent these deaths—not only for this pandemic but for those yet to come.

Nevertheless, it’s nothing short of criminal that neither the labor bureau nor the CDC have any process for assessing the impact of Covid. There is no plan to develop such a system.

The failure of the labor bureau include any Covid-related deaths—as well as the reason that workplace deaths decreased last year—should have been in the first paragraph of the first page, not the last.

This lack of information is doing real damage already. OSHA standards to protect workers have been beaten down (except for healthcare workers) largely due to political pressure.

Even vaccine/testing mandates and other worker protection requirements are losing in court, largely due to the lack of good data on the extent to which Covid strain has been transmitted at work.

There is language in the FY 2022 House Appropriations Report that would require CDC to study the impact of Covid on workers, including disparate impact by race and ethnicity. Passage would be a major step forward.

Otherwise, the workers of this country—many of whom risked their lives going to work every day during the height of the pandemic—are facing a national failure to learn the lessons of this pandemic. These lessons could save thousands of workers’ lives when the next pandemic—or the next variant—hits.

Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He writes regularly at