A new report from the NC Justice Center found a 48 percent increase in workplace deaths in North Carolina over the last decade. 

In addition, the report charges the N.C. Department of Labor with failing to investigate hundreds of workplace deaths, failing to adequately punish companies that break the rules, and failing to enforce state laws. 

“Enforcement has fallen since 2012, in terms of penalties, willful violation assessments, and inspections when fatalities occur,” says Allan Freyer, director of the Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project and author of “Too Lax, Too Often.” “In fact, there’s been a 900 percent increase in the number of fatality cases where no inspection occurred at all.”

While the NCDOL conducted complete or partial investigations of 459 workplace deaths and catastrophic injuries between 2012 and 2018, the report says, 499 other incidents went uninvestigated. Freyer says that could be due to the department misclassifying some workers as independent contractors, whose deaths and injuries the department does not investigate. (The NCDOL denies that it misclassifies workers.)

“Vulnerable and marginalized” employees are most likely to die on the job; disproportionately, they are people of color. Latinx workers, for example, comprise about 10 percent of the state’s population but accounted for 25 percent of workplace deaths between 2012 and 2017. They tend to perform more dangerous jobs; 70 percent of workplace deaths take place at construction, manufacturing, and agriculture sites. 

Kevin Beauregard, the director of the NCDOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, says his staff “knows all too well what anguish and long-lasting impact fatal incidents have on the workplace and the community.” 

The Justice Center, he adds, does not present “accurate” or “complete information when they conclude workplace deaths have ‘exploded’ in North Carolina, compared to the national average.” The number of workplace deaths in North Carolina and nationwide fluctuates from year to year based on a number of factors outside of the NCDOL’s control, he says. 

Still, the idea that Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s department has sided with employers over employees is nothing new. As The News & Observer reported in December, Berry ran for office in 2000 because she was upset that the OSH had fined her company $550. Throughout her tenure, the NCDOL has shied away from penalizing employers. In April, when Berry announced that she would not seek a sixth term, Berry described her department as “not a regulatory agency so much as we’re an agency that will partner with [employers] and will help them achieve safe workplaces.” 

Along those lines, the Justice Center report says the NCDOL’s “core philosophy” is to allow employers to police themselves: “In exchange for voluntary compliance, NCDOL offers lower penalties, laxer enforcement, and fewer investigations.”

“Voluntary compliance gives too many of these violators a free pass,” Freyer says. “And it’s time for the Department of Labor to step up and fully enforce the law.”

Significant penalties exist both to hold employers accountable and to serve as deterrents—the worse the violation, the stiffer the fine, in theory, at least. 

But that’s not always what happens. 

In a 2014 case cited in the Justice Center report, a worker for Delta Contracting was crushed to death; though the NCDOL deemed the violation “serious,” it fined the company just $1,165. 

The Justice Center found that the NCDOL “routinely hands out exceptionally low penalties and then allows violators to negotiate their way to even lower penalties.” As a result, the state’s penalties for serious violations between 2012 and 2018 were more than 30 percent below the national average.

In 2014, Freyer says, the NCDOL handed out an average of $3,120 in penalties for violations involving workplace deaths. The national average that year was $11,287. By 2017, that gap had grown: The state average was $4,177, while the national average was $16,481.

The report also alleges that the NCDOL pulls punches on issuing willful violations against “bad actor” companies, which typically come with the steepest penalties. Most years, the Justice Center says, the NCDOL issues only a handful of willful violations—and the department backed off “full enforcement in almost two-thirds of the cases where workplace fatalities” stemmed from willful violations. (Beauregard points out that the burden of proof is very high for bad-actor violations.) 

One point of agreement between the Justice Center of the NCDOL: The department has too few inspectors. Last year, the NCDOL relied on 97 inspectors, or one for every 44,645 employees and every 2,531 businesses in the state. With that number, it would take the department 108 years to inspect every site in the state. 

Beauregard says division “could use additional resources to reach more employers.” The OSH “has had difficulties over the past several years filling vacant compliance officer positions and retaining compliance officers, primarily due to available funding for salaries.” 

The NCDOL, Beauregard says, has voiced its concerns to both state and federal lawmakers.  

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.