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What Can We Learn from New BLS Injury Data?

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

Those in the field of occupational safety and health pay close attention to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) annual non-fatal injury data. Organizations like the LHSFNA and other advocates for worker safety and health use this data to give context to the reports we hear from the field and shape programs and initiatives for the coming year.

“Progress in the construction industry is often measured in the height of a building rising up from the ground, miles of distribution pipe being laid or the amount of concrete poured in a day,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “It must also be measured in the number of construction workers who are provided with a safe working environment and who are able to go home to their families at the end of every shift they work.”

So what can we learn from the recently released 2018 BLS data on workplace injuries?

The non-fatal injury and illness rate for private employees, which has been slowly declining over the last several years, held steady in 2018. Prior to 2018, the rate had fallen in every year except one going all the way back to 2003. You can see this illustrated by the orange line in the chart below.

This chart tells the story of a consistent decline in injury rates, with progress halting in 2018. As always, it’s important to keep in mind that the small orange dot for 2018 on the chart above represents approximately 2.8 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses to U.S. workers. About 900,000 of those injuries required at least one day away from work.

Digging further into the data and looking at only the construction industry provides slightly different results. While overall private industry injury and illness rates were flat from 2017 to 2018, rates in the construction industry actually decreased slightly, from 3.1 to 3.0 per 100,000 workers. As you can see in the chart below, the health care sector, which also includes some LIUNA members, saw an even larger decrease in injury and illness rates.

There’s no doubt that seeing a decrease in injury rate in both the construction and health care sectors is positive news. It shows that even with a booming construction market across the U.S. and a shortage of skilled labor, workers and employers can continue to make progress in a dangerous industry.

However, there was a side effect of that booming construction market. Because the construction sector is at full employment and there are more construction workers going to work every day, even though the injury rate went down, the total number of workers injured actually went up slightly, from approximately 198,000 to 199,000. It’s important to look at the overall trends, but we must keep in mind that behind those top-line numbers are still hundreds of thousands of worker injuries. Decreasing that number is what drives our mission here at the Fund.

The other annual report on worker safety and health that draws attention every year is the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) data. Look for an in-depth analysis of that worker fatality data in our February issue.

[Nick Fox]

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