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US workplace deaths plateau

The 40-year decline in the number of employees being killed at work in the US has begun to level off, figures published by the national trade union centre, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), reveal.

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The 2017 edition of Death on the Job: the toll of neglect showed that 4,836 people died at work in 2015, a rate of 3.4 per 100,000 workers. This rate is identical to 2014 and slightly higher than the rate of 3.3 recorded in 2013, when 4,585 people died. 

The rate for 2015 was the same as the five-year annual average. However, over the last ten years the fatality rate has almost halved (4.2 in 2006) as the number of work deaths decreased by just under 1,000. 

Though the number of deaths at work has been steadily falling since 1970, the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries – part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics – switched from an employment-based fatality rate to an hours-based fatality rate in 2008. Rates for 2006 and 2007 were calculated using both approaches during the transition and AFL-CIO notes that the two rates should not be compared directly. 

The figures show that the fatal injury rate in the construction sector increased for the second year in a row, from 9.7 per 100,000 workers in 2013 to 9.8 in 2014 and 10.1 in 2015, when 937 workers were killed. This is the highest number in any sector for that year. 

The agriculture, fishing and forestry sector was the most dangerous, the report said, with a fatality rate of 22.8 per 100,000 workers and 570 deaths. 

The second highest fatality rate for 2015 was recorded in the transportation and warehousing sector. Some 765 workers – or 13.8 per 100,000 – were killed. However this was the lowest rate for the sector since 2009 when it was 13.3.

The report also revealed that Latino and immigrant workers, as well as older employees, were at higher risk than their peers. 

The death rate among Latino employees was 18% higher than the national average, at 4 per 100,000 workers. Fatal workplace injuries among this ethnic group increased from 804 in 2014 to 903 a year later, when 67% of them were immigrant workers. 

More than a third (35%) of all workers that were killed in 2015 were aged 55 and above. AFL-CIO said people over 65 have more than 2.5 times higher risk of dying at work than their colleagues, with a fatality rate of 9.4 per 100,000 workers.

States with the highest fatality rates in 2015 were North Dakota (12.5 per 100,000 workers), Wyoming (12), Montana (7.5), Mississippi (6.8), Arkansas (5.8), and Louisiana (5.8). 

The 2015 death toll does not include the number of workers who had died from occupational diseases, which the report estimates to be between 50,000 and 60,000 a year – an average of 150 deaths a day. It said that nearly 3.7 million work-related illness and injuries were reported that year, however this figure could be closer to 7.4 million to 11.1 million once widespread underreporting is accounted for.

According to the report, there were only 1,838 inspectors (815 federal and 1,023 state) to inspect the 8 million workplaces under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s jurisdiction in the 2016 fiscal year, with one inspector for every 76,402 workers. 

AFL-CIO said: “More than 553,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which promised workers in this country the right to a safe job. The Obama Administration had a strong track record on worker safety and health, strengthening enforcement, issuing key safety and health standards, and improving anti-retaliation protections and other rights for workers. 

“With the election of President Trump, the political landscape has shifted dramatically, and many of these gains are threatened. President Trump has moved aggressively on his deregulatory agenda, repealing and delaying worker safety and other rules and proposing deep cuts in the budget, and the elimination of worker safety and health training and other programs. 

“These are challenging times for working people and their unions, and the prospects for worker safety and health protections are uncertain. What is clear, however, is that the toll of workplace injury, illness and death remains too high, and too many workers remain at serious risk. There is much more work to be done.”


Keeley Downey was the former assistant editor of IOSH Magazine. Previously she was editor of Biofuels International, Bioenergy Insight and Tank Cleaning Magazine

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