August 22, 2006

BLS Stats on Dying at Work: Spin Control in the Graveyard

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has issued its report on workplace fatalities for 2005. The total number of deaths (5,702) is down a fraction from the previous year's 5,764. In his press release announcing the results, Assistant Secretary of Labor Edwin Foulke tries to emphasize the positive, which isn't easy, given the inherently morbid nature of the data.

Here's what Foulke had to say, with a few parenthetical Insider comments:
Fatal falls declined 7 percent last year from an all-time high recorded just a year earlier [Wow, did I miss the 2005 OSHA initiative to reduce the death rate from falls?]. Further, fatal work injuries among roofers dropped sharply, by 44 percent, [Gosh, Mr. Secretary, why are roofers suddenly being a lot more careful?] and, fatalities among women in 2005 (402) were the lowest annual total ever recorded by the census [excuse me, but this year's report does not show any historical data on workplace deaths for women. It would be nice to know how many fewer women died in 2005 than in previous years]. While the number of fatalities among Hispanic employees edged up slightly last year due to increased employment of Hispanic workers, the actual fatality rate declined [why are more Hispanics dying?Is the increasing number of fatalities acceptable?].

"Today's report is positive news for our nation and all workers," said Foulke. [A bizarre statement, to say the least. ] "The overall decrease in workplace fatalities is the third lowest annual total recorded since BLS began collecting this data. [Give me a break. We're talking a difference of 62 deaths. Given the 143 million participants in the workforce, 62 fewer deaths is hardly statistically significant.] More importantly, this shows that more men and women were able to return home safely from their jobs. [Well, yes. But this report is the sad tale of the 5,702 workers who didn't.]

"Many of our initiatives to reduce workplace fatalities are showing tremendous successes, [Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, would you care to elaborate on these initiatives?] but there is still more work to do," he said. "The data released today highlight areas where our resources must be focused in order to eliminate fatalities on the job. We remain committed to doing just that." [I'm waiting for OSHA's new "Zero Fatalities for Fishermen" Initiative, coming soon to a port near you.]

No Spin Zone
While I'm sure that Foulkie is doing a heck of a job, we need to look beyond the rhetoric and see what's really going on. Here's what the data tells us:
- If you're going to die at work, it's still most likely to happen on the highway.
- In construction, falls kill more people than anything else. Laborers die at higher rates than workers in the other trades.
- Men comprise 54% of the workplace and 93% of the fatalities.
- Women have a higher rate of death in two areas: on the highway and as the victims of homicide.
- Despite the secretary's reassurances, 917 Hispanics and Latinos died at work in 2005. That's 16 per cent of the fatalities for a group that comprises about 13 per cent of the workforce.
- The most dangerous occupations are fishing, logging and airline pilots - the high fatality rates a combination of high danger and relatively low total numbers in the workforce.
- Among more common occupations, drivers/sales/trucking is the most dangerous, followed by agricultural workers and construction laborers.

The annual data on dying at work does not contain much in the way of positive news. Every year, too many people die on the job. Virtually all of these fatalities are preventable. While we can debate what specific programs are most effective in decreasing the risk of injury and death in the workplace, it's safe to say that this administration has reduced government's role to the bare mimimum. No amount of data spinning is going to change that.



Not only that, but the decrease may not be a decrease at all. Last year's initial fatality figure was 5,703 until April '06 when an additional 61 fatalities were added in a revised report. We will have to wait until next April to figure out what the real number of fatalities is.

"this administration has reduced government's role to the bare mimimum"
Looking at the BLS report, one might also note that there have been about 3,000 fewer fatalities in the first 5 years of this administration (2001-05) than the first 5 years of the one that preceded it (1993-97)!
No doubt some of this is due to a slower economy, but you should also admit the possibility that these results could indicate a more effective use of scarce resources.

We can definitely expect there will be an increase between now and April. There almost always is, even though the increase is statistically small (although, as noted above, so is the decrease between last year's numbers and this years....) Even the full CFOI news release notes that there will probably be an increase in fatalities due to hurricanes as more information becomes available regarding Katrina victims (in addition to the regular yearly increase due to lack of information at Sept. press time).


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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on August 22, 2006 2:56 PM.

Weblog roundup: work fatalities, HR, language barriers, psychiatric disability, and more was the previous entry in this blog.

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