“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
When I was a young engineer living in a small town in central Massachusetts, I would walk into the town center to pick up groceries and go to the post office. On the way, there was a body shop. I got to know the owner and would stop to talk during my walks. One day, he pointed to all the wrecked cars in his lot needing work.
“You know, half of these cars have car phones.” Yes, that was back before cell phones, when the more affluent among us had “car phones.” He repeated. “Half.”
I nodded. He looked at me, shaking his head. “Do you know how many cars on the road have car phones?”
Then it dawned on me. “Nowhere near half.”
He shook his head again. “I’m not putting one of those things in my trucks.”
The Recent Data from the BLS
In 2018, 5,250 Americans died on the job. Not around five thousand…5,250 workers who left behind people who loved them. This is up from the 5,147 Americans who died on the job in 2017. We can learn a lot about making workplaces safer by making sure we know how people die on the job.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—the BLS—which publishes this data in December for the previous year, there are six major causes of work-related fatalities.
Six Major Causes of Work-Related Fatalities
The cause of the fewest work-related fatalities, at 2 to 4% over the years, is fires and explosions. In 2018, the 115 fatalities attributed to fires and explosions accounted for 2.2% of work-related fatalities.
The next lowest cause of work-related fatalities is exposure to harmful substances or environments. Since 1992, harmful exposure has consistently caused between 7 and 10% of work-related fatalities. In 2018, it jumped to 12%, accounting for 621 work-related fatalities.
As a process safety engineers, our work tackles fires, explosions, and toxic releases. We still have work to do.
The fourth leading cause of work-related fatalities in 2018 was contact with objects, which accounted 15% of work-related fatalities. This is about the same as it has been since 1992, in the range of around 16% of work-related fatalities.
As a category, slips, trips, and falls was a distant fourth in 1992. It climbed steadily since then, becoming the second leading cause of work-related fatalities in 2017, accounting for 17% of all work-related fatalities. Seeing this, OSHA worked on updating the fall-protection regulations, putting new regulations in place in 2017, the first major change to fall-protection regulations since 1994. It appears to be paying off. In 2018, slips, trips, and falls accounted for 15% of work-related fatalities, slipping back to the third leading cause.
Workplace violence has been the second leading cause of work-related fatalities in 14 of the last 27 years, and a close third in another 10 years, averaging about 17% of all workplace fatalities. In 2018, it was once again the second leading cause of work-related fatalities, the 828 work-related homicides and other violent deaths in 2018 accounting for 16% of all work-related fatalities. In many years, although not in 2018, workplace violence is the leading cause of work-related death for women.
Year after year, the leading cause of death on the job is transportation. Transportation fatalities account for around 40% of work-related deaths and 2018 was no different. Mostly, they’re automotive. And that doesn’t include commuting, which isn’t considered “work-related.”
So, What Are the Deadliest Jobs?
For this, the BLS publishes data back to 2006. The BLS reports fatality rates in terms of fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalents. The overall fatality rate in 2018 for all jobs in America, public and private, was 3.5, no change from 2017 or the average for the previous decade.
The two deadliest jobs in America are logging and commercial fishing. Since 2006, logging has been the deadliest job in America for 6 out of 13 years, the second deadliest job for 7 out of 13 years. It was deadliest in 2018, at a fatality rate of 98. Commercial fishing has been the deadliest job in America in 7 out of 13 years and second deadliest job for 6 out of 13 years. In 2018, it was the second deadliest job in America, at a fatality rate of 77.
Given the number of reality shows about loggers and commercial fishing, perhaps this is no surprise. What usually is a surprise is the third deadliest occupation in America: aircraft pilot/flight engineer.
Wait! What? Aren’t commercial flights supposed to be the safest way to travel? They are, but not all pilots and flight engineers work for commercial airlines. There are bush pilots and crop-dusters, traffic reporters and air ambulance pilots. A pilot told me once that crop-dusting requires aerobatic moves every few seconds, something commercial airline pilots never get to do. He said “Crop-dusting is like riding a unicycle balanced on a basketball. You may be able to do it, but at some point, you fall off.” And an air ambulance nurse shared, “When we know the patient will die if we don’t get them to the hospital, we’ll take off and fly in conditions other pilots wouldn’t consider.” There were 59 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent pilots and flight engineers in 2018.
Then there are roofers. At a rate of 52 in 2018 and a pretty steady average of around 40 over the past 12 years, roofers have the fourth deadliest job in America. Of the six causes of work-related fatalities, roofers typically die from slips, trips, and…falls.
Rounding out the top 5 most dangerous occupations of 2018, as it has in most years, is…trash collector. Another surprise for most people, but think about it. Every other job where someone has to work in traffic has a flagger out there, warning drivers to slow down. But around trash trucks, there’s no flagger; just annoyed drivers. And the equipment itself. Trash trucks are designed to crush organic matter. Including trash collectors.
What About Safe Jobs?
Okay, so these are dangerous jobs. We can also learn from safe jobs. The safest jobs in America are…librarian and mathematician. And yet—and yet—even librarians have a workplace fatality rate that is not zero. How does a librarian die on the job? The most common cause is transportation. Librarians drive between library branches.
OSHA regulates the conditions that lead to fires and explosions in the workplace. It regulates the conditions that lead to harmful exposure. It regulates the workplace conditions that lead to slips, trips, and falls, and it regulates the workplace conditions that lead to contact with objects. But it doesn’t regulate the conditions that lead to workplace violence or transportation incidents. That means that employers can comply with every OSHA regulation on the books and still not be protecting their employees from the conditions that result in almost 60% of work-related fatalities.
Keeping Workers Safe—More Than Compliance
Every responsible company I have ever worked with insists that OSHA compliance is the floor for workplace safety, not the ceiling.
Many years ago, while I was doing work for a major, multinational chemical corporation, everyone with a company account got an email from corporate safety. The email noted that globally the corporation had experienced 7 work-related fatalities during the previous year. One had been related to process safety. The other six all resulted from traffic accidents. The email said that for those of us working in the area of process safety, we should continue our efforts, but that for the corporation as a whole, they were shifting and adding resources to tackle traffic safety, which is where the greater losses were. That email made a huge impression on me.
Do we know what contributes to work-related homicides? We do. Contact with the public, working alone, poorly lit or secluded workplaces, working late at night or early in the morning, handling cash, and working where drugs are dispensed.
Do we know what contributes to work-related traffic accidents? Sure. Distracted driving is the leading cause. Like drunk driving, distracted driving can be fatal. It took organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving to really turn the tide of social expectations against drunk driving. The tide of social expectations hasn’t turned yet against distracted driving.
As a society, we should expect employers to take these hazards—transportation and workplace violence—more seriously. Workplace safety is not just about fires and explosions, harmful exposure, slips, trips, and falls, and contact with objects. Companies, from small New England body shops to major multinational corporations, have shown they can.
What Can We Do?
What can we do as individuals as we wait for the tide to turn? Let’s start by not distracting drivers. My wife used to open every phone call with “Do you have time to talk?” I always said yes. What else was I going to say, “Nope, no time for you”? But now she opens every call with, “Are you driving?” If I say yes, she replies, “Okay, I’ll talk to you later.” Then she hangs up. Her own phone has a message that says she’s driving and can’t answer. We can refuse to allow ourselves to be distracted, and just as importantly, we can refuse to distract others. No matter how important that policy revision is.
As for workplace violence, it helps if we each stay aware. It also helps if we let employers know that keeping their workers safe from workplace violence is important to us. Let your favorite late-night retailers know that you don’t think having a salesclerk working alone is acceptable.
But mostly, we can stop overlooking the greatest hazards in the workplace—transportation and workplace violence. The tide of society’s expectations turns one person at a time. Be the next. Be safe.