Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Fatal Work Injuries: Census for 31 States

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Fatal Work Injuries: Census for 31 States

Article excerpt

A new BLS program provides better data on work injuries, yielding detail needed to help in preventing future fatalities in the workplace

Fatal work injuries are tragic events that often can be traced to hazardous working conditions or unsafe work practices. Unfortunately, the safety and health community has lacked the basic information needed to assess the full scope of these events. To help fill this information gap, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has designed and is implementing a Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) that generates not only verified counts of fatal work injuries, but also information on how the injury occurred, as well as the age, occupation, and other demographic data concerning the fatally injured person.

This article summarizes the initial results for the 31 States that participated in the first implementation phase of the CFOI program, which covered calendar year 1991. The 31-State total used for this analysis does not represent the fatality profile for the Nation as a whole or for individual participating States. Each such State is expected to release its fatality count and fatality profile later this fall.

Background for a complete census

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a long history of compiling statistics on safety and health conditions for workers. As early as 1912, the Bureau started publishing its first series on industrial accidents in the iron and steel industry. It was not, however, until the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 that recordkeeping and reporting of data on occupational safety and health became mandatory. The OSH Act requires the Secretary of Labor to develop and maintain an effective program of occupational safety and health statistics. Since 1972, the Bureau, in cooperation with State agencies, has conducted an annual sample survey of about 280,000 private sector establishments and has used the survey results to compile injury, illness, and fatality statistics.

BLS staff and experts in the safety and health community, however, believe that such relatively rare incidents as fatal work injuries cannot be measured accurately through a sample survey. Studies have also shown that traumatic occupational fatalities are often underreported. In this regard, estimates by different organizations vary greatly-- from 3,000 to 11,000 deaths nationally per year.(1) Differences in coverage, in definitions of what constitutes a work fatality, and in estimation methodologies contribute to the confusion. The widely varying estimates point to the need for a complete count of such fatalities, compiled using a thorough screening process of all deaths that might be work related.

Besides producing data that are inconsistent, current programs produce data lacking in the detail needed to contribute to the prevention of future workplace fatalities. Information describing the incident and its circumstances (for example, type of incident, location, and objects or machinery involved), characteristics of the deceased (for example, age, sex, and occupation), and characteristics of the employer (for example, industry and size of establishment) are often missing or inaccurate.

Two expert groups charged with evaluating work injury and illness statistics in the United States stressed the need for a comprehensive count of fatal occupational injuries, including work-related deaths of the self-employed, those younger than 16 years, workers on small farms, and other groups commonly not reported in current statistical systems. In a 1987 report, a National Academy of Sciences panel "found it rather startling that an agreed upon method has not been devised to estimate a phenomenon as basic as traumatic death in the workplace."2 The panel recommended that the Bureau of Labor Statistics work with State agencies to compile complete rosters of occupational fatalities from administrative sources such as death certificates and workers' compensation claims. …

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