Bring Out Your Dead

“The Man giveth, and The Man taketh away.” So begins JoAnn Wypijewski’s sermonic report on a report, the AFL-CIO’s 18th annual “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.” Wypijewski only rarely writes explicitly about religion, but a religious aesthetic of witness animates her prose, some of the best literary journalism published today. “Death at Work in America,” though, is about statistics, not stories, like a chapter from the Book of Numbers, not Genesis. Or maybe Lamentations:

Forty years ago, when Americans — lots of Americans —  made things, more of them died in a year on the job than died in a year fighting in Vietnam. This never registered much in the national consciousness. Death in war seems so preventable, so grotesque. Death on the job is “an accident.” The one gets headlines; the other, a shrug.

Forty years on, everything is diminished, but the basic pattern holds. Fewer Americans make things, and fewer fight in the wars. Fewer die on the battlefield or on the factory floor, on construction sites, in the fishing boats and slaughterhouses and logging camps. But the death of US soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan still stirs angry or lamenting souls, and bodycount is still far lower than death on the job.

Troll the web and soon enough up pop thumbnail photos of the fallen troops. The left-wing listserve “GI Special” carries their pictures and short biographies in every missive. Like the 2,975 dead from September 11, the 4,924 American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 are somehow known, memorialized, mourned even by those who despise their industry. Not so the 40,019 workers who died on the job between 2001 and 2007, the latest year for which there are figures (and not counting the 9/11 dead).


But wait; that’s not all.

The good news: after rising every year since 2002, the total number of deaths decreased in 2007. And since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, 389,000 fewer workers have died on the job. The report’s table of statistics since 1970 posts the decline: 13,800 dead in 1970, for a fatality rate of 18 per 100,000; 5,657 dead in 2007, for a rate of 3.8 per 100,000.

This is how we mark progress: death on the job, just not so much of it. An average 15 corpses and 10,950 maimed or hurting workers at day’s end; could be worse. It probably is worse, actually. Because of under-reporting, the number of injured workers every year is likely closer to 12 million than the official 4 million. The 50,000 to 60,000 who die from occupational diseases each year cannot be a hard estimate; cancer, for instance, doesn’t usually come with a pedigree. Even the precision of deaths on the job has to be qualified; the number does not account for the fates of 8.8 million public sector workers not covered by OSHA. It does not include deaths in the underground economy. Not the street dealers killed by rivals or police, and not the hookers and massage artists murdered in the line of duty by the likes of the Craigslist killer.

Read the whole jeremiad and weep.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).