Failure To Prioritize Worker Safety Leads To Illness, Injury And Death: Inside Appalachia


What is the human impact of a failure to prioritize workplace safety? 

In this episode, which we originally aired in 2019, we’ll hear how weak regulatory laws, and a failure to prioritize worker safety, may be contributing to more deaths, and a higher risk of workplace accidents — both at the state and national levels. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, website, on average, about 14 people a day in the United States are killed while working. OSHA is the government agency responsible for regulating workplace laws in the United States.

OSHA doesn’t have a big budget or staff. In fact, just a little more than 2,000 OSHA workers are charged with making sure employers across the country comply with regulations. 

In December of 1970, nearly 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law, and OSHA was formed soon after.

"And so we see a bill that represents the American system at its best. Democrats, Republicans, the House, the Senate, the White House, labor, business, all cooperating in a common goal. Saving of lives. Avoiding of injuries. Making the places of work for 55 million workers safer and more pleasant places to work. This is certainly a great goal."—President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

Five decades later, people are still being killed and injured in workplace accidents. In some states, the federal OSHA program works alongside state safety programs.


Credit Michelle Hanks
Lisa Hobbs holds a picture of her husband, Gene “Pius” Hobbs.

Kentucky Investigation

That’s the case in Kentucky. A 2018 report by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) found that the state worker safety program regularly misses workplace safety violations, fails to interview witnesses and doesn’t figure out the cause of the accident. These shortcomings leave Kentucky workers at risk. An audit by the federal OSHA program backs up what Kentucky journalists found in their series of stories called Fatal Flaws. This reporting was part of a collaboration between KyCIR, the Ohio Valley ReSource, and the Center for Public Integrity.

In 1970, OSHA estimates indicate there were as many as 14,000 people who died on the job in the United States that year. Since then, safety regulations have helped to significantly reduce the number of worker deaths. However, since 2015, the number of worker fatalities has actually risen, slightly. 

Unions, like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), point to laws that weaken regulations. Budget cuts to OSHA and state safety programs have also affected the number of inspectors who regulate dangerous workplace violations. 

Since the KyCIR Fatal Flaws series first aired in the fall of 2018, and following the federal OSHA audit, there have been several personnel changes in Kentucky’s worker safety program. In 2019, the new commissioner of the state Department of Workplace Standards, Dwayne Depp, acknowledged that there are failings in Kentucky’s system, but said they are improving the way they investigate and prevent worker fatalities. Families who lost loved ones in workplace accidents have been waiting for these changes for years.


Nationwide Problem

Many workplace fatalities across the nation are preventable. So why aren’t they? When it comes to worker compensation, why are state politicians in a race to the bottom to offer lower insurance premiums to lure businesses? What is this race to the bottom costing workers?

Howard Berkes has been reporting on these issues for nearly forty years. He retired in 2019 from NPR after 38 years investigating topics like black lung diseasemining disastersworkers compensation, and other worker safety issues here in Appalachia and across the country. Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd interviewed him to talk more about some of the reasons workplace fatalities continue to kill thousands of Americans each year. 

Commentary from Jessica Lilly

In this episode, we hear from several families looking for answers after their loved ones died while on a job. Host Jessica Lilly said she can relate to so many of these families’ stories. Lilly’s father, Chuck Lilly, died while on a job site in 2001. He was electrocuted. “I feel in my heart that his death should have been prevented. He should be here with us now,” Lilly said.

“My dad worked so hard. So much in fact that he would often fall asleep in the driveway after he got home from work. He would often tell me to get an education so I wouldn’t have to work, ‘like a dog like me’ as he would say. But he did it anyway. Until that day, when he didn’t come home from work. The human impact? My family has never been the same. The traditions and special moments just don’t seem to matter or even happen anymore. And I still get mad and terribly sad to see my kids grow up without him.”

We had help producing this episode of Inside Appalachia from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity, and NPR.

Music in today’s show was provided by Dinosaur BurpsMatt Jackfert, Michael Howard and Ben Townsend.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Glynis Board. She also edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. 

You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia.

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