Advocates believe North Carolina workers' deaths should be reported accurately

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Advocates for North Carolina workers say the state Labor Department needs to be more transparent in reporting the number of people who die on the job.

A couple dozen pro-labor advocates marched to the state Department of Labor Tuesday to make two basic charges: 1) the state is under-reporting the number of worker deaths in North Carolina, and 2) that Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry hasn't convened the Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Council in five years, despite being required by state statute to do so twice a year.

There is truth in both of those allegations.

The state does under report the number of worker deaths as compared to how the federal government tallies the number. In 2012, the federal Bureau of Labor reported 146 people dying on North Carolina job sites. The state reported 36.

Commissioner Berry "has turned a blind eye to workers deaths," said NC AFL-CIO spokesperson MaryBe McMillan. "Instead of reporting to the public all workplace deaths, she has chosen for the past few years to report only those deaths that her office deems as their responsibility."

Department of Labor Chief of Staff Art Britt says that's because the state only counts the on-the-job deaths it investigates.

"If we report [federal] numbers, they're not inaccurate," said Britt, "but it's not what we have the authority to investigate; it's not what we would have the resources to investigate fully to some final report."

Asked whether it makes sense to reflect both numbers on the state website, Britt pointed out they link people to the federal site and said, "I guess, it's a valid question. I think we feel like we are providing those numbers, again, they're not our numbers."

Britt said the department would consider adding the additional information on the website.

"Can we provide it in greater detail and minimize the confusion between our authority and, say, the federal authority," said Britt. "We possibly could. It's something we'll look into."

"It certainly underreports the number of deaths," said McMillan. "And you know, all these workers, their lives mattered. Their deaths should matter and we should look at those deaths and figure out ways to prevent them."

McMillan also complained that Commissioner Berry hasn't convened the Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board once in the past five years, despite being statutorily required to call meetings twice a year.

Britt admits the council hasn't met but said the 12-16 members have gotten quarterly Powerpoint presentations since 2012.

He said Commissioner Berry stopped convening the group to save money during a financial crunch in 2009.

"Did we go against the legislature because we were legislatively mandated," asked Britt.

Britt posed the question and answered it.

"True. Possibly. But the fact of the matter was, when you look at cutting jobs and you look at cutting services, keep in mind, we're about public safety. We were trying to save money. And a meeting, travel costs, and calling people in from all corners of the state, we just felt that was a very legitimate way," he said.

Asked whether they considered setting up a free 800 conference call, Britt said, "There are plenty of options we could pursue but the options I've laid out for you (quarterly Powerpoint presentations delivered via email) are those that we did pursue.

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