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If it seems like you’re hearing about a lot more construction-related deaths lately, you’re not alone. Anyone who pays close attention to news concerning the industry has likely noticed reports of construction worker deaths in the U.S. have come across the wire at a consistent click so far this year.
Officials with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration have taken notice as well.
“We recently investigated deaths at jobsites in Kansas City, Missouri; Framingham, Massachusetts; Brookhaven, Georgia; Bellevue, Washington and Albuquerque, New Mexico,” said Dean McKenzie, the deputy director of OSHA’s directorate for construction.
“And that was just one week.”
And the frequency of deaths hasn’t been limited to the national perspective. At least three regions of the U.S. this year have seen a concentrated amount of construction-related deaths in a short period of time.
According to a recent report from the Sun-Sentinel, four construction workers have been killed in the last month in Broward County, Florida. And in May, the deaths of four construction workers in a span of four days spurred the California arm of OSHA to launch a special investigation across jobsites in and around San Francisco.
Finally, earlier this month, OSHA sent extra enforcement staff to North Dakota due to a rash of worker deaths in the oil and gas and construction industries. The 34 worker deaths since 2012 have accounted for 84 percent of all workplace deaths in North Dakota.
Despite the apparent increase in construction death reports, there are no hard numbers for 2014 or 2013 to verifty the notion just yet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is tasked with keeping a tally of workplace deaths in its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (COFOI). These numbers come out twice for each year: a preliminary tally of the previous year is released in October with the finalized numbers landing the next April. The main reason these reports take so long to tabulate is that they’re very thorough. McKenzie explained that the CFOI pulls from multiple sources to tally construction deaths and must confirm each one in at least two ways, be it through a morgue report or investigation of the incident itself.
That means the most up-to-date figure we have is the final report for 2012 which was released just a few months ago in April. We won’t even know the preliminary 2013 figures until this October. And our first look at 2014’s numbers won’t come until October 2015. So we talked with McKenzie to gain a bit of insight on OSHA’s expectation regarding whether construction deaths have increased or not in the last two years.
In 2012, 806 construction workers died on the job, according to the 2012 CFOI. McKenzie said that number alone was enough to get OSHA’s attention as it represented a 9 percent gain over 2011’s total of 738 deaths and the first increase in six years.
McKenzie said construction workers represent about 7 percent of the total U.S. workforce. But according to the 2012 CFOI, they account for 17 pecent of all workplace deaths. That knowledge combined with a upward trend in residential construction deaths (the number rose from 72 to 89 in 2012) has OSHA officals “concerned.”
“We have been aware of trends in residential between 2011 and 2012. And from what we’ve been able to gather from 2013, we’re concerned,” McKenzie said.
Despite no hard numbers from the BLS to back it up, McKenzie said the theory that construction deaths have increased in the last couple of years is logical and actually has historical basis.
“We’ve seen the industry come around a bit during the great recession and we’ve seen the housing starts continue to climb and construction activity in general is growing,” he said. “And logic would tell you the fatalaties will continue to climb alongside activity.”
McKenzie said an increase in construction-related deaths in the past two years would also likely also related to more inexperienced workers entering the industry.
“The increase of construction activity is a normal cycle and we’ve been able to historically document that after a downturn in the market and work picks back up you get a lot of people going back into an early workplace market,” he said. “And just because you go in doesn’t mean you have the experience and training to be in that role.”
In the wake of the recession, thousands upon thousands of skilled tradesmen walked away from the industry for good, retiring or finding more stable work in other industries such as oil and gas. A survey done last year by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 74 percent of contractors in the U.S. are having trouble finding skilled workers.
As far as how the agency is responding to these concerns, McKenzie noted its fall prevention efforts as one example. Now in its third year, the campaign was the focus of a recent National Safety Stand-Down. Running June 2-6, construction companies across the country spent the week talking about fall prevention and studying free education and training resources provided by OSHA. More than a quarter of construction-related deaths in 2012, 281, were caused by falls, McKenzie said.
As far as responding more localized concerns, McKenzie said that while it can be hard for the national agency to be quite as agile as it would like to be in those cases, the regional agencies are a big help in that regard as was seen in the rash of deaths in the San Francsisco area.
“But we do try to push as many buttons for these issues as we can,” he said, noting the national agency’s response to the collapse of a building undergoing demolition in Philadelphia that killed six people last year. McKenzie said the agency worked with the city’s government officials to “help them rewrite their permitting requirements to make sure the engineering surveys and the requirements of our standards were implemented as much as they could be in their city codes.” The agency also hosted training for city and government workers and continues to work with the city on the issue.
He noted another case that came late last year when the agency stepped in during the demolition of a three-and-a-half-story building in Connecticut that had the potential of collapsing. “It was a brick building built in the early 1900s that they were trying to rehabilitate. The contractor had taken all the interior floor joists that tie the building together so all he had was a brick box,” McKenzie said. “Compliance officers called our engineering office to get our support on how weak this structure would really be and we shut it down until the job could be done safely.
McKenzie said the agency also keeps an eye out for big events that could increase construction work in a particular region. “In Denver after a large hailstorm recently, thousands of roofs had to be replaced,” he said. “We sent our compliance officers in and, it was incredible, they simply stood on a hill and scanned the rooftops and could see dozens and dozens of roofs being worked on and no one had fall protection on.”
McKenzie asked contractors to “pay attention” and stressed the importance of having a safety plan in place.
“Rates came down and fatalities were down in 2010 and 2011 and we liked seeing those numbers. This is an opportunity for us to dedicate more energy to protecting workers and eliminating some of these hazards,” he said. “But a good safety plan is good for your bottom line, it’s good for profit and it’s good for worker retention.”