The recent deaths of 29 men in a West Virginia coal mine illustrate an important point about the labor market: men have much greater exposure than women to work-related fatalities because men are overrepresented in the most dangerous, high-risk jobs like coal mining (almost 100 percent male), fire fighters (97 percent), police officers (84 percent), correctional officers (73 percent), and construction (97 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.
In 2008 (most recent year available), men were 13 times more likely than women to get killed on the job—4,703 men died in work-related accidents compared to only 368 women (see chart below). Workplace safety improvements have reduced the annual number of fatal occupational injuries in the United States by almost 25 percent since the early 1990s, but the share of male deaths has remained constant at about 93 percent for the last several decades (BLS data here).
Economics tells us that total worker compensation takes the form of both monetary and non-monetary factors. The less favorable the non-monetary factors of a job are (e.g., physically demanding labor in relatively dangerous work conditions), the more monetary compensation is required to offset those undesirable job characteristics. Because male workers are disproportionately exposed to dangerous work conditions, the wages in many male-dominated professions reflect a wage premium to compensate for the higher occupational risk, and this is one reason for a gender wage gap.
This has nothing to do with discrimination, but can be explained by gender differences in workplace risk tolerance. On average, men are more willing than women to accept higher compensation for a higher risk of work-related death or injury.
For those groups that support gender pay equity, like the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), they have to also be simultaneously advocating increasing the number of women in higher-risk occupations like coal mining. That will reduce the gender pay gap, but it will come at a huge cost: thousands of additional women every year will face certain work-related deaths.
Interestingly, groups like the NCPE never mention the issue of worker safety when they explain differences in pay, but instead claim that:
Part of the wage gap results from differences in education, experience or time in the workforce. But a significant portion cannot be explained by any of those factors; it is attributable to discrimination. In other words, certain jobs pay less because they are held by women and people of color.
To promote its position of gender pay equity, the NCPE annually publicizes “Equal Pay Day,” upcoming next week on Tuesday, April 20. According to the NCPE:
This date symbolizes how far into 2010 women must work to earn what men earned in 2009. Because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work longer for the same amount of pay. Equal Pay Day was originated by the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) in 1996 as a public awareness event to illustrate the gap between men’s and women’s wages.
Inspired by Equal Pay Day, and in recognition of the significant gender differences in workplace deaths, let me propose the creation of “Equal Occupational Fatality Day,” which will occur next on October 11, 2021. That date symbolizes how long women will have to work before they experience the same loss of life from work-related deaths that men experienced in 2008. Because most women work in much safer occupations than men, they must work about 13 years longer than men to experience the same number of occupational fatalities. Equal Occupational Fatality Day is being originated to illustrate the gap between men’s and women’s occupational deaths, and bring awareness to the fact that closing the pay gap would also close the work-related death gap and expose thousands of women to occupational fatalities each year.