By William Lineberry
One was backed over by a bulldozer. One was crushed by a grapple, a metal claw commonly used for moving heavy materials. And one – a fire fighter – fell from an overpass while trying to put out an automobile fire. All of these workers died on the job. And they were all in Virginia.
Workplace fatalities fell 7 percent nationwide in the past year. A total of 4,383 workplace deaths occurred in 2012 while 4,693 happened in 2011, according to the Census for Occupational Injuries report, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued in August.
However, in Virginia, workplace fatalities climbed 15 percent from the previous year. And in the Richmond area, the numbers of workplace deaths were higher in 2012 than they have been in five years, according to federal and state data.
During 2012, Richmond saw a 53 percent increase in workplace fatalities. The toll went from 17 deaths in 2011 to 26 in 2012.
In 2011, of the country’s more than 300 metro areas, Richmond ranked 47th for workplace fatalities. Last year, it jumped to 24th.
Nearly one out of five workers, 18 percent, killed in Virginia during 2012 died in the Richmond area. Among the more populous U.S. metro areas, Richmond saw one of the largest percentage increases in workplace deaths during 2012.
Most states saw a drop in workplace fatalities – but not Virginia. It has seen an increase in workplace fatalities for each of the past three years. And in 2012, it was in the top five states for the largest increase in workplace deaths, along with New York and Texas.
Virginia went from 127 workplace fatalities in 2011 to 146 deaths in 2012, a 15 percent increase. In the last five years, 655 workplace fatalities have occurred in the state.
Virginia ranked 20th among all states for workplace fatalities per capita in 2012, with nearly four of every 100,000 workers suffering a fatal accident at work. Virginia was one of only six states in 2012 that saw a double digit increase in fatalities.
“We can’t speculate on why workplace fatalities are increasing in Richmond and Virginia,” said Thomas Sheppard, commissioner at the Virginia Department of Labor. “That’s just the way it is.”
Not all fatalities reported in the Census for Occupational Injuries result from safety violations by employers or workers, Sheppard said. The reasons for the deaths in the report range from safety violations and equipment malfunctions to homicides and suicides at workplaces.
Nearly 50 percent of worker fatalities in Virginia during 2012 were transportation-related. Other common causes of workplace fatalities in Virginia were falls, slips and contact with objects or equipment.
The industries with the highest fatality rates in Virginia last year were goods and services, transportation, natural resources and mining and private construction, according to data from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Many things could cause a spike in workplace fatalities, said Michael Belzer, labor scholar and professor at Wayne State University in economics. They include a lack of funding for state inspections of workplaces, deregulation of industry standards and economic pressures that cause employers to compromise standard safety precautions for employees, Belzer said.
Between 2011 and 2012, the Virginia Department of Labor saw a cut in its overall budget of more than $350,000. On the federal level, OSHA saw a slight increase in its 2012 budget.
Sheppard offered another possible reason for the increase in workplace fatalities in Virginia: the state’s improving economy. With better than average employment, and more people going to work, there is a greater risk of workers dying, Sheppard said.
But Belzer said he doubts that the economy is a big factor.
“I can’t believe a better economy in Virginia would be the sole reason for an increase in fatalities,” Belzer said. “Virginia is not all that different from the national economy. It could be a factor, but not the only one. It sounds like more of an excuse.”
Among Virginia metro areas, Richmond was second in on-the-job deaths in 2012 to the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area. The D.C. metro area, which extends into Maryland and West Virginia, had 68 workplace fatalities last year. That was up 10 percent (six deaths) from 2011.
The Virginia metro area with the highest percentage increase in fatalities was Bristol-Kingsport area straddling the Virginia-Tennessee line. Workplace deaths there jumped from three in 2011 to eight last year.
Richmond was second in the state for percentage increase in fatalities.
Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Richmond AFL-CIO, said that to reduce workplace fatalities, Virginia must foster a culture that embraces safety on the job.
“One hundred and forty-six deaths is still 146 too many,” Mays said. “That’s 146 people and 146 families. Every worker should expect to come home at the end of the day. A high percentage of these fatalities could be prevented if the right means are taken.”
Mays said there is a reason for each fatality. Inspectors should pinpoint the reasons so the state and employers can address them, she said. Employers should ensure that employees have proper training, tools and working conditions to lower the risk of a fatality, she said.
Experts say employers, employees and government officials must promote workplace safety every day – not just when there are problems. Sadly, Mays noted, it’s hard to get that point across.
“The only time people really want to talk about workplace fatalities is when an accident happens,” Mays said. “But by then, it’s too late because someone has already lost their life.”