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Work Zone Fatality Data Collection Is Falling Short

We live in an increasingly data-driven world. Companies like Google and Facebook have shown the importance (and immense value) of quality data. Outside of these billion-dollar companies, data is often at the center of federal and state policy, funding and advocacy decisions. When it comes to worker safety and health, good data helps us see where progress is being made and where more work needs to be done.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

One area that’s become a particular focus for LIUNA signatory contractors, affiliates and members in recent years is work zone safety. Since 2013, work zones have become increasingly dangerous for workers and the traveling public, with yearly increases in incidents, injuries and deaths. Despite an annual National Work Zone Awareness Week campaign that reminds drivers to use extra caution, there are more than 120,000 crashes and 43,000 injuries in work zones each year. These crashes result in the deaths of at least 780 drivers, pedestrians and workers. In 2019, 135 of those fatalities were workers (spoiler: it’s very likely this reported number is inaccurate and far too low).

Most of the data we have on highway crashes and fatalities comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and their Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). This system is how we find out that more than 38,000 people are dying on U.S. roadways each year. FARS also tracks the total number of crashes and fatalities in work zones. However, FARS has a major limitation – the system classifies anyone who is struck outside of a vehicle as a pedestrian. That means when a construction laborer or other worker is hit and killed in a work zone, NHTSA counts it as a pedestrian fatality, not a worker fatality.

“LIUNA members and other workers are building and maintaining a critical infrastructure network across the U.S. and Canada, and they deserve every protective measure we can provide,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Part of that effort should include a full and accurate classification of incidents in highway work zones, so we can respond to the hazards being faced by workers with the best information available.”

The current classification system results in NHTSA – the agency in charge of safety on our nation’s roadways – lumping workers and pedestrians into the same category. The first problem with this is that the events leading to each incident and the steps needed to prevent them are very different. The second problem is that this misclassification results in policies and campaigns that don’t include workers.

For example, the Ohio Department of Transportation’s 2020 pedestrian safety report states that “pedestrian crashes are on the rise,” yet the 55 page document does not mention workers once. If state DOTs want to reduce the number of pedestrians being struck and killed by motorists, they need to understand the people behind those numbers and who is being counted as a pedestrian.

“We can parse some of the NHTSA data for worker fatalities, but we can’t be certain,” says Brad Sant, Senior Vice President of Safety and Education at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). “If a fatality occurs on a freeway, we can be reasonably sure that’s a worker and not a pedestrian, because most people aren’t walking on interstates. In more urban areas, it’s harder to tell. Maybe that’s an office worker out to lunch who was trying to skirt the edge of a work zone. The problem is we can’t tell for sure.”

Traffic conesIt makes sense that NHTSA’s system wasn’t built with workers in mind, since the agency is primarily focused on how the public uses the roadway. What about work zone fatality reporting at worker-focused agencies like the Department of Labor (DOL) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)?

BLS fatality data comes from the annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), which is compiled from a variety of sources at the state level. CFOI data is reliable for tracking the total number of worker fatalities, but it can be difficult to examine in detail. That’s because CFOI data automatically groups certain categories of workers together, so getting a sense of who those workers are, and what they were doing when they were killed, is difficult. For example, trenching and excavation work is categorized separately from highway work, even if that trench project is being done along a highway. So if a motorist intrudes on a trench project along a highway and kills a worker, that gets counted as a struck-by fatality in trenching, not as a work zone death. The same problem applies in several other areas, such as if a worker is struck by a vehicle while doing landscaping work or maintenance work along a highway.

Ultimately, neither NHTSA nor the BLS report a single, bottom-line number of workers killed in work zones. Due to inadequacies in how worker fatality data is currently collected and reported, it’s estimated that the true number of workers being killed along our roadways each year could be underreported by 30 percent or more. That means at least 200 workers being killed annually in work zones and along roadways instead of the 130 worker number that’s often cited.

Improving how work zone fatality, injury and accident data is compiled and reported is critical to improving both worker safety on the job and the safety of the traveling public. Federal and state agencies make policy decisions and allocate resources based on this data. If this information isn’t accurate, agencies risk pouring time and funding into areas that may not be as effective or don’t address the problem. When LIUNA members and other workers are not included in the data, we get left out of the solutions.

For more information about work zone crashes and fatalities, check out the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, which cross-references several sources in an attempt to present the most accurate data.

[Nick Fox]

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