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Workplace deaths rise, after several years of drops

Trench digging-OSHA.JPG
OSHA Training Institute, Southwest Education Center /
An example of the dangers of “trench digging” illustrates how workers should not stand near or under operating machinery.

When you leave home for work, you probably assume you’ll live to come back at the end of the day.  For 86 workers, that didn’t happen last year.

They died on the job. Digging holes, driving tractors, flying to meetings.

A new report details how and where:

  • Construction deaths are down significantly, with just seven each of the last two years, but that’s probably because overall construction is down.
  • Homicides and suicides at the workplace dropped last year, from 20 to seven.
  • Meanwhile, seven workers died all at once last year in an explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes.
  • And, seven others died in separate plane crashes.

The total number is a big increase from 2009, when 65 people died.  But, it’s also close to the long-term average.

Barbara Silverstein, chief health and safety researcher at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, says the data is a "dramatic" reminder that people die on the job, but "it's hard to say there are any striking trends" over the past decade.

The number of deaths goes up and down, in a seemingly random way, according to data collected by the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) program.

Some examples of the individual deaths included in the L&I report include:

  • "Laborer Struck by Boom of Excavator When it Tips Over"
  • "Farm Laborer Dies from Heat Stroke"
  • "Operating Engineer Struck by Concrete Slab"
  • "Farm Tractor Operator Falls from Tractor and Run Over"

"It’s a little disconcerting when you look at agriculture, forestry, and fishing. That's where we have the most --20 fatalities in that industry," says Silverstein. Logging and fishing have long been considered dangerous occupations.  Manufacturing ranked second, and transportation (i.e. trucking) ranked third.
Other highlights from the annual report point to some specific risks:

  • Machine-related incidents were the number one cause of fatalities at 19 incidents (or 22%) of the total. This more than doubled the 9 machine-related fatalities in 2009.
  • Seven farm workers died in tractor roll-over accidents, which prompted L&I to issue a hazard alert to the agriculture industry last month.

Labor and Industries is charged with preventing workplace accidents. They say, even if deaths on the job have stayed at about the same levels for the past decade, the number of injuries on the job has been going down steadily over time. Whether that's due to safety improvements, or to the economy moving toward more service and office jobs, is unclear.

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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