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Annual Fatality Data Shows Uneven Results for Construction Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its 2018 data on occupational fatalities in December. Of all the safety metrics available in the field of occupational health and safety, these lagging indicators are widely seen as the best measure of industry-wide trends. Annual injury and illness data, which we covered in last month’s January issue, is also important, but it can be subjective and is based on data that is self-reported by employers and workers. Fatality data, on the other hand, is objective and must be reported, giving it more credibility among safety and health professionals.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

According to the most recent BLS data, there were 5,250 fatal occupational injuries across the U.S. in 2018. Although that is a two percent increase over 2017, the number of fatalities seems to have plateaued over the last few years at slightly higher than 5,100. Construction fatalities increased from 965 in 2017 to 1,003 in 2018. Drilling down further, deaths on the job among construction trade workers dropped from 747 to 731, while fatalities among construction laborers stayed the same year over year at 259. Much of the rise in construction fatalities occurred during the extraction of oil and gas, with fatalities going from 41 in 2017 to 64 in 2018 in that sector.

“We can never allow the number of workers killed on the job to seem commonplace or normal,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Whether it’s in construction or another sector, every one of these workers leaves behind family members, friends and loved ones. They are the reason we continue to work tirelessly to improve working conditions for LIUNA members across the U.S. and Canada.”

Motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of work-related deaths in the U.S. Transportation incidents, which led to 2,080 worker deaths in 2018, accounted for 40 percent of all work-related fatalities. Of particular concern to Laborers are fatal roadway transportation incidents in the form of motorist intrusions into highway work zones. Roadway fatalities in construction increased from 125 to 132, once again largely driven by an increase in the oil and gas extraction sector, where deaths doubled from 9 to 18. Roadway fatalities among construction laborers dropped from 37 to 20, showing remarkable progress.

When looking further into specific hazards, it was a pleasant surprise to see a significant reduction in fatalities caused by falls, which dropped from 887 in 2017 to 791 in 2018. Even with this decrease of almost 11 percent, deaths due to falls remain the nemesis of construction safety. Many of OSHA’s outreach efforts over the past few years have increasingly centered around providing employers with consultations, guidance and support in addressing the number one cause of death in construction. Those of us in the field of occupational health and safety are often hesitant to attribute improvements to any one program or campaign, as it’s difficult to link the two with certainty, but it is nonetheless rewarding to see a decline in the number of workers being killed on the job due to falls. Of particular significance is that the reduction seems to be driven by fewer falls to a lower level, which went from 713 to 615.

Another area that LHSFNA staff has been monitoring closely includes fatal incidents of workplace violence, which continue to be driven by suicide. Violence and other injuries by persons or animals was up three percent overall from 2017; work-related suicides rose 11 percent, from 275 to 304. According to the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries – which categorizes all occupational suicides as a form of workplace violence – there were 28 suicides that occurred on construction worksites in 2018. That number was up slightly from 25 in 2017. Unintentional overdoses from drug use while at work increased 12 percent, from 272 to 305. This marks the sixth consecutive year the number of unintentional overdoses on worksites has increased. In the construction industry, there were 26 fatal overdoses on worksites in 2018. Suicide, opioids and other drugs continue to be major issue in the construction industry. Of all professions, construction workers are the most likely to die by suicide and the most likely to abuse opioids and cocaine.

This annual BLS data helps put hard numbers to the reports we hear from the field and the headlines that fill up our inboxes. We use this information to shape outreach efforts around specific hazards, while keeping in mind that every worksite is different, with its own set of unique challenges and opportunities. Plus, it’s important to remember that this data still lags behind current conditions on today’s workplaces by a full year. Because of that, as we set out to improve safety and health for LIUNA members, it’s important that we always assess and fix the hazards that are right in front of us, even if they aren’t spotlighted on this year’s report.

[Walter Jones is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety & Health.]

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