The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released today its annual census of work-related fatal injuries. Before you scroll through the data do one thing first: Read the Center for Public Integrity’s “Death in the Trench.”
Reporter Jim Morris writes a soulful story of a plumber named Jim Spencer. The 61-year-old suffocated in an unshored trench in March 2016 at a construction project in Alliance, Nebraska.
“When a worker dies of traumatic injury gloom spreads like a webbed crack on an ice-covered pond, reaching far beyond the immediately family to touch former colleagues, lifelong friends—and in Jim’s case—waitresses, convenience store clerks and other strangers he routinely engaged in conversation in this western Nebraska railroad town of 9,000 people.”
Morris captures the heartbreak felt by Spencer’s wife Cheryl. He also shares her reaction to the meager monetary penalty that OSHA assessed to the two companies involved in the construction project. Cheryl Spencer’s reaction is one I’ve heard often from victims’ families: Kill somebody at work and all they get is a slap on the wrist.
Jim Spencer was one of 37 workers in the U.S. were killed on the job in 2016 in collapsed ditches, trenches, and the like, according to data released today by BLS. In total, 5,190 workers died last year from fatal traumatic injuries. That figure is a 7% increase from the 4,836 fatal injuries identified by the agency for 2015. BLS’s news release notes:
“This is the third consecutive increase in annual workplace fatalities and the first time more than 5,000 fatalities have been recorded by the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) since 2008. The fatal injury rate increased to 3.6 per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers from 3.4 in 2015, the highest rate since 2010.”
Jim Morris’ story about Jim Spencer’s death would be diminished–perhaps not even written–if Spencer’s name didn’t appear. Using his name and seeing photos from his life can’t help but change the way I think about worker fatalities. It makes me think about the other 36 other workers who died last year in excavation collapses—and the thousands of others killed on-the-job in 2016. They aren’t just numbers. What were their names?
It’s regrettable that OSHA’s current leadership is censoring information about worker fatalities. OSHA no longer posts the names of recent workplace fatalities. OSHA’s leadership prefers to think about worker fatalities as statistics, not as individuals with names, faces, and loved ones left behind.