“In 2010, we saw some of the deadliest workplace disasters in recent history,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), “but the sad fact is, thousands of Americans were killed on the job in accidents that got very little, if any, attention at all. Unfortunately, because Congress failed to act this year on legislation that would have protected American workers, we can expect more of the same next year.”

Nearly 5,000 workers died on the job in 2010. Despite their diverse nature, the vast majority of these accidents – including the incidents that made the top 10, O’Connor said – were easily preventable.

“In most cases, workers at these sites where people were killed were aware that there was something wrong in their workplace,” O’Connor said. “But workers on these and far too many other worksites feared for their jobs if they talked too openly about safety hazards on the job. This year, if we learned nothing else, we learned that when workers lack the security and confidence to speak up about life-threatening hazards on the job, catastrophic incidents are inevitable.”

Unfortunately, O’Connor said, while cases like the Gulf of Mexico explosion and resulting oil spill and the West Virginia mining disaster grabbed the headlines, a quiet epidemic of job fatalities continued throughout the country. Few people heard about the thousands of deaths from falls from roofs, trench cave-ins and other “routine” incidents on jobsites throughout the year.

“The solution to the problem of worker safety in our country is not complex,” O’Connor said. “Fines for serious hazards, currently averaging only about $400, need to be greatly strengthened. Workers who fear for their safety on the job need to be given real ‘whistleblower’ protections, so that they can warn others about serious hazards without losing their jobs. OSHA needs far more resources in order to be able to inspect workplaces more than once every half-century or so on average, and employers who knowingly and recklessly place their workers’ lives in danger should face more than misdemeanor charges with a maximum sentence of 6 months in jail that current law provides for.”

Top 10 Deadliest Workplace Tragedies

According to COSH, the following workplace tragedies made the top 10 list for 2010:

1. April 20, 2010 – Deepwater Horizon explosion. An explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, injured 17 others and resulted in the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Media reports indicate that management knew key safety equipment had been compromised in earlier incidents, but chose to ignore the significance and continue operations.

2. April 5, 2010 – Upper Big Branch mine explosion, Montcoal, W.Va. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., killed 29 workers. The accident represents the worst mining disaster in the U.S. since 1970. Public documents show that the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, has a long record of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine.

3. Feb. 7, 2010 – Kleen Energy Power Plant, Middletown, Conn. Contract workers at the Kleen Energy plant were performing a “gas blow,” a procedure that uses natural gas at very high pressure to clean pipes of debris. During the process, the gas encountered an ignition source resulting in a massive explosion, killing six workers and injuring 30 others. Following its in-depth investigation, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called natural gas blows “inherently unsafe practices” and called for the immediate ban on the procedure.

4. April 2, 2010 – Tesoro Refining & Marketing Company, Anacortes, Wash. A ruptured heat exchanger at the Tesoro Refinery caused an enormous explosion that rocked the plant and killed seven workers. A 6-month long investigation by Washington state OSHA personnel determined that the explosion could have been prevented if the company had carried out proper testing and maintenance of the equipment.

5. Dec. 9, 2010 – AL Solutions Plant, New Cumberland, W.Va. An explosion of undetermined origin killed two brothers working at the plant and injured a third worker. According to media accounts, the AL Solutions plant has earned a reputation as a “dangerous place to work” and the deaths of the two brothers represent the third and fourth deaths, respectively, at the plant in the last 15 years.

6. March 2, 2010 – Northwest Insulation, Artesia, N.M. Four contractors were installing insulation on top of a new crude storage tank. Workers were welding when a fire ignited. Two workers were injured when they fell while a third remained on top of the tank and was fatally burned. A fourth worker was confirmed dead more than a week later. An OSHA investigation into the cause of the accident is ongoing.

7. May 5, 2010 – Amtec Corporation, Huntsville, Ala. Two workers were killed in a violent explosion at a plant that manufactures rocket fuel. Federal investigators later cited the plant’s owners for six serious violations and willfully exposing workers to fire and explosive hazards without proper protection.

8. June 12, 2010 – Top Notch Cleaners, LLC, Valley, Ala. Two employees were buffing floors during the night at a mental health outpatient facility with machines that use propane gas. An employee of the outpatient facility discovered both men dead the next morning. Both the employee and the police who responded to the incident smelled gas when they entered the building where the men were working. Investigators believe carbon monoxide poisoning and inadequate ventilation contributed to the deaths.

9. July 22, 2010 – Horsehead Corp., Monaca, Pa. An explosion at the Horsehead zinc refinery, a facility with a long history of safety violations and OSHA citations, killed a pair of workers and injured two others. Although investigators have still not determined the cause of the blast, the company has a long history of safety violations.

10. July 23, 2010 – Northeast Energy Management Inc., Cheswick, Pa. Two workers engaged in arc welding were burned to death when the tank they were working on exploded, throwing their bodies approximately 60 feet away from the site of the ignition. The explosion and fire that killed the workers was the third involving Northeast Energy Management since September 2007, when one employee was severely burned in an explosion at a gas and oil well.

O’Connor stressed that national political leadership needs to recognize that, after 40 years, the outdated Occupational Safety and Health Act needs a major overhaul. Only then, he said, can the families of the nearly 5,000 workplace victims in 2010 feel that their loved ones did not die in vain.