Pennsylvania readers may be surprised to learn that work-related illnesses kill more Americans than guns do each year. The government estimates that approximately 50,000 workers succumb to sicknesses caused by exposure to workplace toxins each year, compared to the 30,000 people who lose their lives to gun violence and accidents annually. Because the casualties of occupational disease die slowly and less dramatically than victims of gun violence, the media ignores their suffering. Worse, the U.S. government has a history of ignoring their suffering as well.

According to job safety advocates, worker protection laws in the United States are very weak. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has very limited power to regulate toxins in the workplace. This is the fault of OSHA, industry, Congress and various presidential administrations. For instance, asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries, but it is still legal for certain uses in the U.S. It is also present in many old buildings and houses, which exposes thousands of demolition and utility workers to its deadly fibers. Instead of making asbestos illegal, in January, Congress is expected to vote on a bill that would make it more difficult for workers made ill by the mineral to file claims against the corporations that made or used it.

In order to get around the nation’s anemic worker protection laws, the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice recently announced that they will start going after problem employers for violations of environmental laws. While worker safety violations are only misdemeanors, some environmental crimes are felonies. Agency officials say that employers who violate worker safety regulations often ignore environmental rules as well and combining the crimes may lead to stiffer penalties for offenders.

Pennsylvania victims of occupational disease may be eligible to apply for workers’ compensation benefits under their employer’s insurance coverage. An attorney could help prepare the necessary documentation and ensure that the claim is filed on time.