“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies.  And I think what we got on our hands is dead shark.”  — Woody Allen, in Annie Hall

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases their workplace fatality statistics in December for the previous year. So, here at the end of 2020—the Year of the Pandemic—we are getting a chance to see the fatality statistics of 2019, the last year of “normal”.

As I write, Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are being distributed and more vaccines are in the pipeline. There is high hope that by mid-2021, we’ll be back to normal.

The question is, is it a “normal” we want to get back to? Or can we use this recovery from the Pandemic as a good excuse to up our game.

What Is Normal?

In 2019, the overall rate of work-related deaths was 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 full time equivalents. The same as it was in 2018, and in 2017. The same as it was in 2009, the first year of the longest stagnant stretch we have ever seen in regard to improvements in workplace safety.

The number of work-related deaths has climbed, but in proportion to the growth of the workforce.

How we died at work hasn’t changed either.

Transportation was once more the leading cause of work-related fatalities, again accounting for about 40% of work-related fatalities – 39.9% in 2019. It’s been at about 40% of work-related fatalities steadily for the last three decades. No improvement, but it’s not any worse.

Slips, trips, and falls, after dipping in 2017 following OSHA introduction and enforcement of new fall-protection regulations, was the second leading cause of work-related fatalities in 2019 at 16½%, edging out workplace violence. Workplace violence fell from the second leading cause of work-related fatalities, barely, to third. With homicide accounting for almost 16% of all work-related fatalities, it has been the second leading causes of work-related fatalities in 14 of the last 28 years.

At 14% of work-related fatalities, contact with objects remained the fourth leading cause of work-related fatalities, about where it has been since 1992.

As for process related causes – fires, explosions, and toxic exposure – there was not much movement there either.  Fire and explosions resulted in 99 work-related fatalities, slightly less than 2% of all work-related fatalities. This at the low end of the range of 2 to 4% that the BLS has reported for the last 28 years. The range for harmful exposures has historically been 7 to 10%, but in 2018 it was up to 12% which is also where it was in 2019.

Have the Deadliest Jobs Changed?

The two deadliest jobs in the U.S. remain commercial fishing and logging. And rounding out the list of deadliest jobs in the U.S. are the same occupations we have seen in the past: pilots and flight engineers, roofers, and trash collectors.  The only change is that a general category of construction helper, proved as lethal as roofing and collecting trash.

America’s Deadliest Jobs in 2019

  • Commercial fishing             145 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs
  • Logging                                   69 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs
  • Pilots/flight engineers         62 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs
  • Roofers                                    54 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs
  • Construction helpers           40 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs
  • Trash collectors                    35 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs

Have the Safest Jobs Changed?

Just as the deadliest jobs in the U.S. remain the same, so do the safest jobs: librarian and mathematician. In 2019, both of these occupations had fatality rates of 0.3 fatalities per 100,000 FTES, over a hundred times safer than our most dangerous jobs.

Because many of our readers are engineers, we’ll share the BLS’s report that engineers have a work-related fatality rate of 1.3 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs.  Again, no change from previous years.  So, not as safe as being a librarian or mathematician, but almost three times safer than the average job and orders of magnitude safer than commercial fishing.

Like a Shark

To borrow from Woodie Allen, safety is like a shark. It has to constantly get better or it dies. And despite the best efforts of safety professional everywhere, safety in the workplace is not getting better. So, getting back to “normal” cannot be the goal.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been totally disruptive. We are going to beat it, though. When we do, let’s not rush to get back to the way it was. Let’s sieze this opportunity to make a real shift in the safety of our workplaces. Let’s not accept the old normal as the new normal.

Happy New Year!


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.