The Fatality Puzzle

It's not so easy to figure out what the most dangerous jobs are, despite what those Top 10 lists say. The key is piecing together the fatality puzzle at your particular work sites, for your particular workers.

Friday, September 1, 2006
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Beware those published lists of "most dangerous" jobs. From year to year, the order may change. And from year to year, the lists continue to mislead.

The rankings blur within occupations where there are huge variances and contingencies in fatality risk, known to sharp-eyed human resource executives, safety professionals, insurance underwriters and researchers.

Subpopulations within an occupation may have strikingly different risk levels due to varying work characteristics. Safety measures capable of drastically reducing fatalities may be readily at hand, but used ineffectively. Ethnicity may enter into intramural variances.

In at least one occupation, for example, the primary cause of death is not traumatic injury as suggested by many published reports, but a personal condition typically not thought of as work-induced: heart conditions. Substance abuse, particularly drinking, is behind many vehicular and even solo plane-piloting fatalities.

Thus, a simple ranking, usually topped by loggers, miners, fishing crew members, airplane pilots and crews, and steel workers forms a less reliable picture than a puzzle with missing pieces.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has been calculating fatality rates since 1992. It reports annual rates for more than 100 occupations, using the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's counts of fatal injuries and the government's periodic survey of the American workforce by occupation. The most recent report outlines data for 2005.

A fatality rate is calculated by dividing the count of workplace deaths by a uniform measure of the number of workers in an occupation. In 2005, 81 pilots died; there were 121,000 pilots; thus, there were roughly 67 work deaths for every 100,000 pilots. The entire civilian workforce in America has a fatality rate of about four per 100,000. Pilots then had 17 times the risk of dying on the job in 2005 than did the average worker.

Because of the small number of reported work-related deaths -- 5,702 in 2005 -- a change from one year to the next in the absolute number of deaths in any occupation can greatly alter the rate.

However, the reported ranking of risky occupations does not change significantly from year to year.

But more careful scrutiny further suggests these rankings may be unreliable once contingencies and subpopulations are considered. While our main focus is on particular industries, we can't ignore risk factors that sweep through the entire American economy. Regardless of the industry in question, the human resource executive needs to be alert to factors that can compromise even the most well-designed and well-intentioned employee-safety program. These factors include the use of small isolated working units, entirely self-supervised workers and a labor market with a culture of frequent shifting among employees.

A third factor increasing fatality risk is the use of low-wage immigrant workers. Many of these workers may be here illegally and may, therefore, feel deterred from being open about their safety concerns. Also, many if not most of these employees may have limited English language skills.


Government researchers go to extraordinary lengths to make sure both the number of work-related deaths and workforce estimates are reliable. Rarely, though, do they dig much deeper into the finer points of the statistics. If they did, their findings could have some important consequences and shed important light on various industries.

Logging and fishing work can be extremely dangerous or moderately dangerous, depending upon the adaptation of known safety solutions to the particular work environment. Loggers, for instance, usually die from being hit by falling limbs, getting caught in machinery or being crushed while handling trimmed logs.

The industry has known for some time that investing in mechanization reduces the number of workers vulnerable to serious injury at the logging site. Mechanization can also slash the single greatest fatality risk: a chain-saw worker being struck by the very tree that he (rarely she) is cutting. Industry safety professionals know that intensive training can work, too

Some Maine logging companies, in coordination with their insurer, Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Co., and regional logging associations, have adopted programs of ongoing safety certification for workers. The worker receives a week of highly supervised training and, after a month, spends a day in the field with an evaluator. If approved, he receives a certification. He must be recertified annually.

The results speak for themselves: MEMIC has not incurred a single death from the primary fatality risk- in 12 years.

Dan Cote, who runs loss-prevention services for the insurer, says every logging workforce in the country could enjoy the same result, if it adopted a similar plan.

Safety training in the logging industry presents a special challenge, as it does in some other dangerous jobs, such as long-haul trucking, fishing, some mining jobs and aircraft piloting: The usually isolated worker has to show a high degree of self-reliance in problem-solving, but also must not bridle at intensive safety training. The challenge intensifies if the employer or operating unit has fewer than 50 employees.

The generic, transferable elements of this strategy for high-risk isolated work are the following. First, employers band together to support the program. This is critical where there is a culture of employees moving from one employer to another.

Second, intensive, perhaps even one-on-one, training is necessary. This not only assures that the correct knowledge and behaviors are put in place, but also -- in the eye of the trainer -- the worker is suited by temperament to safe work.

Third, the certification and annual recertification process elevates the program to a status award and removes any remedial or disciplinary image.

In the early 1990s, Alaska's commercial fishing crews suffered fatality rates in the range of 200 per 100,000.

A concerted effort by the industry reduced the rate significantly, in large measure by correcting poor preparation of the small coastal boater, commercial as well as pleasure, for the main event: rescue or self-rescue of a man overboard. The number of boat sinkings remained about the same, but the survival of people who fell in the water improved.

Thus, solving the fatality puzzle within a high-risk occupation may mean finding the root causes behind significantly different patterns of death and injury, and -- through vision and persistence -- getting employers and workers to change their ways.

Citing his work with the international forest-products company Weyerhauser Co. and other corporations in North America and Europe, Wolfgang Zimmerman argues that it is possible to predict whether and when the losses in high-risk exposures will decline.

A Canadian who went from a career-ending logging accident -- he walks with the aid of two canes -- to founding a nonprofit international program on disability management, Zimmerman founded and runs the Victoria, British Columbia-based National Institute of Disability Management and Research. This nonprofit has been used by many companies and governments worldwide.

Zimmerman says radical reduction of losses in an industry such as forestry occurs if the involved parties -- workers, employers and insurers -- explicitly agree in advance to ambitious goals. If one party is not up to the challenge, then that flagging party's expectation sets a limit on improvement.

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Zimmerman makes a point of learning the total cost of fatalities and injuries. High fatality rates may persist because their cost is lost in a haze of part-time employment, uncoordinated workers' compensation, long-term disability plans, personal-injury suits, work stoppages and subrogation. Consolidating the cost data may reveal that permanent injuries such as his may cost far more than deaths. His is a call for better accounting: greater transparency down to the individual accident.

High fatality rates, such as those among air-transport and construction workers, may not be so susceptible to change through radical applications of safety standards. Aircraft-death figures are high partly because small planes often crash with more than one worker in the plane.

Almost all multiple-fatality accidents involve commercial aircraft. (Deaths of passengers not employed in air transport are not included in the pilot and crew fatality rates.)

Crop dusting appears to be, by far, the most dangerous of commercial-aircraft work. Federal researchers calculate that a pilot who expects to devote an entire career to full-time crop dusting has a 30 percent chance of dying on the job.

Illegal Immigrant Factor

Risk of death among construction laborers varies greatly by ethnic background and, more deeply, the immigration status of the worker. There are, today, about 7.5 million illegal immigrant workers in the United States, many of whom are Hispanic. Many work in high-risk residential construction jobs. Through a nice piece of detective work using employment data, researchers estimated in early 2006 that more than a quarter of roofers and construction laborers in America are illegal immigrants.

Juan, an illegal immigrant roofer, is more likely to be a rurally reared Mexican, young (hence less experienced), with poor English-language skills, and working for a subcontractor who skimps on safety measures and cheats on payroll obligations and the workers' compensation insurer.

A few years ago federal researchers determined that Hispanic construction workers had sharply higher fatality rates relative to their age, education and tenured peers who were non-Hispanic.

In New York's Manhattan metropolis, an illegal immigrant construction crew is more likely to look like the United Nations. A few years ago a construction-industry task force in New York referred to "two cities" of safety culture. Anyone can visit these two cities in the space of an hour. Go visit some large commercial construction sites in Manhattan, which are tightly controlled and have full-time site-safety managers. Then drive past the smaller residential construction under way in the boroughs, where using protection equipment tends to be more of a personal virtue and New York's scaffolding rules are routinely violated.

A safety professional once discovered scaffolding constructed out of bamboo on such sites.

Solving the fatality puzzle in construction requires a multipronged public campaign, a challenge for which state regulators have not, to date, been fully prepared. These efforts can rebound to the detriment of insurers. Massachusetts recently began to make construction contractors financially accountable for workers' compensation coverage failures of their subcontractors.

The net effect, according to some prime contractors, has been to greatly increase their, and their insurers', exposure to high claims rates.

Probably no occupation has been subjected to as relentless an examination of fatality risks as firefighting. But it has paid off, through the discovery of a silent killer lurking beneath the formal cause of death figures: More firefighters die at the scene from heart attack than from falling structures, suffocation or burns.

During the drive to or from a fire, as many firefighters die from heart attack as die from trauma due to car crashes.

These vignettes of the grim reaper at work point to a few important lessons for employers on how to prevail against significant risks, including approaching deaths and permanent injuries as joint concerns; searching for solutions in the job itself, in the job holder and in the environment; having trust in safety improvements without being hesitant about verifying them; and, finally, knowing when to fold.

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