Why Accidental Deaths Are on the Rise
How did the U.S. become such a dangerous place to live and work?
Produced and edited by Brooke Shuman
Accidental deaths and injuries have skyrocketed since the 1990s. More than 200,000 people died in accidents in 2020. So what has made the U.S. such a dangerous place to live and work? We looked into it on our latest episode of The Class Room, featuring injured Amazon worker Leonard Johnson, author Jessie Singer, and Eric Frumin of The SOC. Below is a full transcript of the video.
[Narrator]: Leonard Johnson is one of 1,000s of Amazon workers that is injured each year, often severely. Leonard was injured while loading boxes onto the conveyor belt when he tripped on a ladder and hit his head.
Leonard Johnson: Amazon was where I thought I wanted to be until I got hurt. They want you to go in and work and work and work, and they actually want you to work until you bleed. But they don’t really care one way or another if you bleed or not.
Leonard Johnson: Blood went everywhere. I didn’t realize I was hurt as bad as I was, I didn’t know I was bleeding as bad as I was. I made my way to the bathroom and in the process of making my way to the bathroom, I didn’t know I left a blood trail.
[Narrator]: Leonard took three days off to recover, but when he got back, he found they wouldn’t cover his days off and they wouldn’t let him clock in. Leonard hasn’t worked a shift since then.
Leonard Johnson: The bills never stopped coming. I still have bills to pay, regardless. So after a few weeks, I had to go find me another job working at the Waffle House. All I wanted was to be paid for them to pay for those three days that I was off. And I would have been good.
[Narrator]: Leonard’s story is not unique. In the notoriously hazardous warehouse industry, Amazon is one of the most dangerous. It has nearly double the rate of injuries as its competitors. Why can a company as big as Amazon, that’s valued at $21.3 billion, get away with this?
Jessie Singer: Corporations don’t solve their worker safety problems because it would cost them a little money, but also because there’s no real cost or penalty. They do not care or have to care.
[Narrator]: That’s Jessie Singer, she wrote the book There Are No Accidents. Accidental death is currently higher in America than at any time since we’ve been keeping record. In 2020, more than 200,000 people died by accident. In car crashes [42,051], house fires [3,500], drug overdoses [93,331], and falls on the job .
Jessie Singer: A huge category of things that we’re supposed to think of as random.
[Narrator]: But it isn’t always random, and we really shouldn’t be saying “accident.” Singer says unintentional deaths are on the rise because, since the 1990s, we’ve deregulated most of our economy to benefit corporations. And it doesn’t affect us all equally.
Jessie Singer: Accidental death falls along race and class lines. Black people are killed in house fires at twice the rate of white people. Indigenous people are killed and struck and killed by drivers at twice the rate of white people. People in a poor state like West Virginia are die by accident at more than twice the rate of people just across the state line in the wealthier state of Virginia.
[Narrator]: How did America get so dangerous? And what can we do about it? This is The Class Room, from More Perfect Union.
[Narrator]: In 1903, a journalist named Crystal Eastman was investigating worker deaths in Pittsburgh’s Steel District, the hub of American industry. And every year, workers were dying on the job.
Jessie Singer: And when workers were injured, corporations told a story about those workers, that the workers were drunk, the workers were dumb, and the workers were immigrants who didn’t speak English. And that was why workers died.
[Narrator]: Eastman wanted to know if the story the companies told was true. She recorded the deaths and injuries over the course of a year and interviewed the workers who had been injured and the families of the workers who died. What she found was that the deaths on the job: the burns, the lost limbs, the falls, were no accidents,
Jessie Singer: Workers did not die because they were drunk or dumb or immigrants who didn’t speak English. Workers died because they worked on unguarded machines in unsafe workplaces at impossible paces. Crystal Eastman was writing in a moment of widespread unionization. Strikes regularly ground industry to a halt.
[Narrator]: That combination: Crystal Eastman’s research and widespread union power led to the first workers compensation laws.
Jessie Singer: And I think that’s a really important lesson. Corporations are never going to care about people unless it costs them money.
[Narrator]: Initially, worker safety was mostly regulated at the state level.
Jessie Singer: Real federal movement doesn’t happen until the 1970s. And we really see a remarkable moment where public literacy and social movement push these things forward. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating the agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
[CSPAN]: OSHA has a staff of compliance officers in the field to inspect workplaces and make sure they meet the standard.
Jessie Singer: All of these are ways of forcing the government to protect us from corporations. And as a result, accidental death falls for decades.
[Narrator]: But in 1980, Ronald Reagan changed the paradigm.
[Ronald Reagan]: Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Jessie Singer: Ronald Reagan was elected on an anti regulatory platform, and he put in place a cost benefit requirement, which essentially says that if a regulation costs too much to protect people, it’s not worth it. And it’s not allowed.
[Narrator]: Since then, deregulation has been celebrated by Republicans and Democrats alike.
[Bill Clinton]: I’m interested in results not red tape. The Vice President says that all the time. We are determined to make that the rule of the land.
Eric Frumin: There’s no question that when workers have power, they can make a huge difference in terms of the safety on their jobs and the jobs of their coworkers. And we’ve seen that for, you know, decades.
[Narrator]: This is Eric Frumin, he is a researcher at the Strategic Organizing Center. Frumin has been fighting for workers safety for decades. Here he is testifying before the Senate in 1992 about urgently-needed reforms to OSHA.
[Eric Frumin]: 5000 workers dead in industries covered by OSHA, and OSHA never finds out about them. This is an outrage.
[Narrator]: In 2021, Frumin and the Strategic Organizing Center released a report that looked at the rate of injuries at Amazon. Why Amazon?
Eric Frumin: Well, as of right now it’s the second largest private employer in the U.S. It’s one third of the entire warehouse industry and it’s growing.
[Narrator]: They found that Amazon warehouses had a higher rate of injuries than any other employer in the warehouse industry and over twice the rate of its main competitor, Wal-Mart. The SOC report offered some simple solutions to reduce injuries.
One: Regulate the quota monitoring system.
Amazon uses monitoring systems that automatically notify workers when they’re falling behind. Workers say the notifications cause them to skip bathroom breaks and work dangerously fast out of fear of losing their job.
Leonard Johnson: If they could take their time and do their job the way their job is supposed to be done, instead of running and running and running, and slow down what you’re doing, the safety record wouldn’t be so bad. Amazon wouldn’t be so bad to be a job.
[Narrator]: Two: Stop terminating people for missing quotas.
Right now, Amazon employees pack hundreds of boxes per hour and can be fired if they don’t meet Amazon’s demands.
Eric Frumin: Other highly, highly sophisticated companies–UPS for instance, use digital monitoring. But what they can’t do is threaten to fire workers if workers can’t keep up. Why? Because article something of the Teamsters contract says UPS can’t do that!
[Narrator]: Three: Regulate robotic systems.
The SOC found that the robotic systems that Amazon uses force workers to perform the same task over and over at speeds that easily result in injuries. Fulfillment centers with robots actually had a HIGHER rate of injury than other warehouses.
In response to negative press, Amazon introduced a worker safetysafely program called WorkingWell, that encouraged workers to stretch before shifts, and introduced AmaZen kiosks at the workplace—small booths where workers could take a “mindfulness break.” But the WorkingWell initiative didn’t include anything about actually slowing down the speed of the workplace or lowering worker quotas.
This is the kind of tactic that was familiar to Singer when she was researching her book and she’s not buying it.
Jessie Singer: No I don’t think a quiet moment in a meditation kiosk is going to end the worker injury problem.
[Narrator]: But there are some other solutions. In April 2022, the Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center was the first to unionize.
Leonard Johnson: I think that was one of the best ideas anybody can have. Amazon’s biggest fear is unionizing. They don’t want you to unionize. They don’t want everybody to be able to speak and share their voice because then they will have to actually listen.
[Narrator]: A few states have introduced regulations that challenge Amazon’s monitoring systems and prevent workers from being fired for missing quotas.
[NY State Senator Jessica Ramos]: No worker in New York state is disposable. Every worker deserves dignity and respect at the job.
[Narrator]: OSHA is also vastly underfunded. The AFL-CIO reported that the number of state and federal OSHA inspectors is near its lowest number in its 50 year history. But Singer and Frumin, as well as the workers themselves, say few things compare to workers having a seat at the table.
Leonard Johnson: I was blind like everybody else. Until they get a union or somebody to speak on people’s behalf, employees’ behalf, its not worth it. Because you mean nothing to them.
[Narrator]: Leonard’s right. And history proves it. From Crystal Eastman’s reporting and labor movements that made the workplace safer to Ronald Reagan and the trend of deregulation that made corporations more powerful, we know that companies like Amazon aren’t going to change unless they’re forced to.