Why Is Alabama Such A Deadly State For Workers?

The AFL-CIO issued an interesting report compiling data on workplace deaths across the United States. According to the study, Alabama ranks 7th in the rate of worker deaths. Why is Alabama consistently one of the most unsafe states for workers? Why is our state among the most dangerous for workplace injuries and deaths?

On a weekly basis, I talk to injured workers and their families. I’ve counseled families following some of the most tragic accidents imaginable. I’ve counseled workers who only want to heal and get back to work so they can continue caring for their families. I could tell you so many ways our policymakers have failed to keep us safe. Today, I’ll tell you three quick reasons why Alabama ranks so much higher than most other states for deadly accidents.

Lack Of Workplace Inspectors

According to the AFL-CIO report, there are only 27 Federal inspectors and ZERO state inspectors overseeing workplaces in Alabama. With so few inspectors, most construction and industrial sites will NEVER be inspected before a deadly accident or event.

The lack of inspectors is a real safety issue. If we had more inspectors, deadly issues could be identified before a tragic event.

I often think about a plant in Decatur that operated overhead cranes around other moving people and machines. The plant would continue to operate cranes even when workers were on lifts all around the crane. No lock out of the crane. No stoppage of work even for a few minutes while workers were exposed. I don’t believe anyone had ever inspected the facility to identify this dangerous activity. I know that no agency had warned the company to stop before a deadly accident occurred. Several workers had previously begged the company to stop but that’s another issue. One day, the crane struck an extended lift. Two electrical workers fell from a serious height. Both suffered tremendous internal injuries and orthopedic injuries. Both of these workers suffered disabilities. In another case of mine, a worker on the roof of a plant in Scottsboro fell 30 feet when the ceiling below him crumbled and collapsed. That ceiling had been cracking and crumbling for some time due to fumes in the factory. An inspection might have led to the repair of that ceiling before the terrible fall.

I could tell many stories over the last 25+ years of representing workers and their families. Most tragedies were easily preventable. Most deaths could have been avoided. We need adequate inspectors for the many worksites across Alabama.

Lack Of Fair Compensation For Injured Workers

I have to tell injured workers on a daily basis that our work comp system is unfair — Totally Unfair. I’ll give you an example — In Alabama, compensation for permanent partial disabilities is capped at $220 per week. That small rate was set by the Alabama Legislature decades ago. Over the many years since then, the cost-of-living has increased tremendously. Yet, partially disabled workers still receive the same capped benefits. It’s terribly unjust to put hard-working men and women in the position that they cannot care for their families if hurt.

The unfair permanent partial disability compensation I mentioned is only one of the many ways our workers’ compensation laws short-change workers. Here is another example. In Alabama, our work comp laws have a listing of specific body parts. If you hurt one of those listed body parts, your compensation is so limited it’s a joke. An absolute shame. Year-after-year, the Alabama Legislature has chosen corporate and insurance lobbyists over the interests of our greatest asset — The hard-working men and women of our state.

Maybe you’re asking what low compensation has to do with a lack of safety. Our policymakers devalue workers. Because of that, dangerous companies don’t pay for the disabilities that result. Companies that choose to put workers at risk know their cost in the event of a tragedy is low. These companies know they can shift the tragic costs of disability and death to the impacted family, community and other taxpayers. That’s wrong.

Lack Of Penalties For Dangerous Workplaces That Hurt Or Kill Workers

As I mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, our work comp laws are totally unfair in the small benefits provided. These laws are also unfair because they create a double standard for safety. Under Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act, a worker who intentionally breaks safety rules can be barred from receiving any benefits. What about the company that intentionally breaks safety rules? The company that breaks all the rules pays the same benefits as the company that tried to do everything right. The company that is careless with its workers suffers no penalty. That’s wrong. It sends the message that our state does not value workplace safety.

We Should Take Workplace Safety Seriously

Some companies treat safety like a slogan. It’s not. Safety is a real issue. When a father or mother gets up in the morning and goes to work, their loved ones expect them to return safely. If we really value safety, we need to shift our policies to value human life and to truly value working families. I’ve discussed three ways we could shift the issue of safety in our policymaking. I could discuss so many more.