Dying for Work: Documenting the Pandemic’s Deadly Toll on Massachusetts Workers

September 10, 2020

Today, MassCOSH released a special report documenting the loss of life taking place at worksites across Massachusetts due to the pandemic. Titled Dying for Work: Documenting the Pandemic’s Deadly Toll on Massachusetts Workers, the report details how many working-age Mass. residents have died of COVID-19 and lists workers who died of COVID-19 after a potential workplace exposure. It also includes occupational health experts’ estimates of how many workers have tested positive for the disease and the record numbers of safety complaints made by workers to government agencies. Click here to view the report.
The report details the known 59 workers who died of COVID-19 after potential workplace exposures. MassCOSH stresses the number is understood to be a massive undercount of workers lost during the pandemic due to the failure of employers and government agencies to comprehensively track COVID-19 data at the workplace. The report counts over 1,000 working-age MA residents who died of COVID-19 from March 10 to July 31. On April 28 of 2019, MassCOSH reported a total of 69 workers who died from work in 2018 due to injury and illness.
On April 10, a week before Massachusetts hit its peak of COVID-19 cases, OSHA relaxed the requirement to record work-related cases of COVID-19 for most businesses. The weaker regulation remained in effect until the end of May, causing work-related cases of COVID-19 to go unreported. In Massachusetts, health officials only began reporting the occupation of people tested for COVID-19 in July, after MassCOSH and the MA Public Health Association’s COVID-19 Equity Task Force pushed legislators to pass a law requiring the data be collected. Still, valuable occupation data is still largely missing. Nearly 70% of positive COVID-19 case records from March 10 to July 31 - and 97% of all COVID-19 test records in that time - are missing the individual’s occupation.
The report details the thousands of complaints made by workers reporting dangerous conditions to various government agencies, and the agencies’ failures to protect workers. It notes that throughout the entire pandemic, just one workplace has so far been cited by OSHA in Massachusetts for COVID-19 workplace safety violations. With Black and Brown people disproportionately harmed by the pandemic, the report illustrates the links between race and work-related exposure.

The report highlights workers organizing to fight for safer working conditions. These campaigns include New Bedford seafood processing workers successfully working together to shut down a processing plant for deep cleaning, and school staff demanding that building ventilation and filtration systems be tested, upgraded or installed to prevent needless illness and death before schools open to in-person teaching.

The report calls for dramatic action to be taken to stop workers from getting sick and dying from COVID-19. They include Federal Level actions, such as passing the “HEROES” Act (passed in the House as H.R. 6800), which mandates:

  • OSHA to promulgate an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers from airborne infectious disease
  • Expand the Defense Production Act to increase production and supply of needed PPE and medical supplies
  • Extending unemployment insurance, expanding mandated paid sick and family leave, and other protections 

At the state and local level, the report demands:

  • Ensure that the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards creates and enforces strong COVID-19 regulations to protect all public and private sector workers (including but not limited to those in healthcare, grocery stores, restaurants and in schools), with requirements for robust ventilation and filtration systems in all indoor environments.
  • Passing “occupational presumption” legislation that ensures that any worker reporting to work outside their home who contracts COVID-19 during the pandemic is presumed to have become ill from workplace exposure and can get the Workers Compensations benefits they deserve.
  • Passing legislation that would expand paid sick time benefits and provide additional protections and needed support to immigrant and low-wage workers.