The chilling video of a Tulsa, Oklahoma man being pulled to his death in an industrial clothes dryer provides a rare look at a hidden national tragedy: more Americans die on the job every year than have been killed in the entire seven years of the war in Iraq.
According to the Department of Labor, 5,214 people were killed in workplace accidents in the United States in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available. It is an average of about 14 deaths a day.
"I think there are a lot of irresponsible employers who don't ensure that workers are given safe work places in which to work," said Dr. David Michaels, the newly appointed director of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, responsible for workplace safety. "Fourteen deaths a day on the job is far too many," he said in an interview to be broadcast Wednesday on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline.
The worker who died in the clothes dryer, Eleazar Torres Gomez, 46, of Tulsa, Oklahoma worked for Cintas, the country's largest laundry company.
The company appeared to have an excellent safety record until the fatal accident in March, 2007. Six months after the accident, OSHA levied $2.75 million in fines for violations of safety rules connected to the dryers at the Tulsa plant.
Torres Gomez had climbed on to a moving conveyor belt to dislodge a pile of clothes being fed into the dryer. He became entangled and was pulled into the dryer where the temperature was in excess of 300 degrees.
In a statement to ABC News, Cintas said that "evidence and sworn testimony" established that no one in management was aware that employees were getting on moving belts to clear jams, that employees had been trained not to get on moving belts "for any reason," and that those employees who violated the training testified they had done so "only when no member of management was present."
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Other employees and plant surveillance cameras indicate, however, that climbing on the belts had become a common practice despite the company training.
Cintas agreed to pay the fines — huge by OSHA standards — but continued to maintain it had done nothing wrong. The company says it has since installed equipment that would make it impossible for a similar accident to occur.
Under the Bush administration, OSHA officials cited figures showing a steady decline in on-the-job injuries and deaths.
But in his interview with ABC News, the new OSHA director Dr. Michaels was highly critical of Bush administration policies that he said overlooked efforts by many companies to understate accidents and injuries.
"I think the last administration was very comfortable with this idea that injury rates were slowly going down. But they didn't want to pick up the rock and look underneath it," said Dr. Michaels.
"I think what is going on here is that there is an epidemic of programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries," he said.
He cited workplace bonus programs that offer cash incentives or "a slice of pizza" if there are no reported injuries for a given time period.
"We think these programs are against the law and we're going to go after them," said Dr. Michaels.