Machine-Related Occupational Fatality Trends in The United States

Occupational deaths are an unfortunate reality and are common across industries. Not all industries and occupations, however, pose the same kinds of safety hazards for workers. Some industries have a high death rate while some others are safer in comparison.

In a paper published in 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed fatality rates in different industries using the data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries and assessed machine-related death trends over a period of 19 years – from 1992 to 2010.

Introduction

Ever since it was formed in 1971, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has done stellar work on improving machine safety, promoting safe work practices, and identifying the machines that are most dangerous to work with.

Using the data from the National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities (NTOF), researchers from the NIOSH found that between 1980 and 1985, forklifts and tractors were responsible for the most significant number of machine-related deaths at workplaces.

Data from the NTOF also showed that between 1980 and 1989, machines were responsible for 14% of occupational fatalities, making them the second leading cause of work-related deaths in the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that workplace safety has notably improved over the years thanks to the introduction of new regulations and the formulation of safety standards and best work practices.

The bigger question, however, is – have we made it safer for people to work in and around machinery by forming organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970?

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that work-related deaths have decreased in the past few decades. Still, 13% of occupational fatalities in the country are even caused by machines (including heavy-duty mobile equipment such as tractors and forklifts). Also, some workplaces allow the use of machinery that introduces new kinds of risks for workers.

Overview of Trends

Given here is a summary of occupational fatality trends during the 19-year period between 1992 and 2010.

  • There were a total of 14,625 work-related deaths caused by machines – 770 deaths per year on average. During the same period, there was a 32% drop in work-related deaths caused by machines. There was a 22% drop in deaths caused by mobile machinery and a 56% drop in deaths caused by stationary machinery.
  • The annual average occupational fatality rate (caused by machines) was 0.6 per 100,000 FTE. There was a yearly drop of 2.8% in the overall machine-related occupational fatality rate per 100,000 FTE. Similarly, there was an annual drop of 2.6% in mobile machine-related fatality rate and a decline of 3.5% in fixed machine-related fatality rate per 100,000 FTE.
  • The annual average fatality rate was highest among workers aged 75 and older (10.5 per 100,000 FTE). Workers in the age groups of 65 – 74, 55 – 64, and under 55 had a fatality rate of 3.1, 0.8, and 0.4 per 100,000 FTE respectively. All four age groups saw a sharp decline in fatality rates during the 19-year period. The most significant reduction in fatality rate was among workers aged 75 and above (5.7%) and those between 65 to 74 years of age (5.5%).
  • There were a total of 4,831 machine-related accidents involving self-employed workers, accounting for 33% of the total number of accidents caused by machines. Between 1994 and 2010, the annual average fatality rate among self-employed workers was 1.7 per 100,000 FTE compared to 0.4 per 100,000 FTE among regular workers. There was a 6.9% decline in the average annual fatality rate among the self-employed compared to a 1.9% decline among ordinary workers.
  • The most substantial number of work-related deaths was caused by tractors (4,279 or 29% of all deaths). Forklifts were responsible for 1,487 deaths (10%), excavators were responsible for 1,078 deaths (7%), loaders were responsible for 953 deaths (7%), and cranes were responsible for 720 deaths (5%). The annual average fatality rate was also the highest among tractors (0.17 per 100,000 FTE). Forklifts had an annual average fatality rate of 0.06 per 100,000 FTE, followed by excavators (0.04), loaders (0.04), and cranes (0.03).
  • Over the 19-year period, there was a significant decline in the average fatality rate per 100,000 FTE for all these machines. There was an annual decline of 3.7% in fatality rates for cranes, followed by tractors (3.5%), loaders (1.8%), and forklifts and excavators (1.2% each).

Industry-wise Trends

Between 2003 and 2010, the most significant number of machine-related deaths was in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector (2,063 deaths or 37% of all work-related deaths caused by machines).

There were 1,204 deaths in the construction sector (22%), 776 deaths in manufacturing (14%), and 725 deaths in services (13%). The agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector also had the highest annual average fatality rate caused by machines (10.8 per 100,000 FTE), followed by mining (3.5) and construction (1.4).

The annual average machine-related occupational fatality rates in agriculture/forestry/fishing, mining, and construction sectors were significantly higher compared to the overall yearly average machine-related occupational fatality rate, which was 0.5 per 100,000 FTE.

However, the overall fatality rate across all industry sectors dropped during the 8-year period from 2003 to 2010. The decline was particularly notable in mining (12.3%), manufacturing (6.6%), and construction (5.5%).

Here is an analysis of the fatality rates per 100,000 FTE in the two sectors that had the highest number of fatalities between 2003 and 2010 – agriculture/forestry/fishing and construction.

Agriculture/Forestry/Fishing

Mobile machinery caused nearly 94% of machine-related deaths in the sector. From 2003 to 2007, there was a notable decline in tractor-related fatality rate, which again increased from 2007 to 2010. Workers in the age group of 75 years and above were particularly vulnerable to tractor-related accidents.

The tractor-related fatality rate for this age group was four to eight times higher compared to the overall machine-related occupational fatality rates in the sector. It was as high as 94.7 per 100,000 FTE in 2003 and dropped to 54.7 per 100,000 FTE in 2010.

Construction

Mobile machinery caused 78% of machine-related deaths in the sector. There was an annual decline of 5.7% in mobile machinery related deaths per 100,000 FTE and a drop of 4.6% in stationary machinery-related deaths per 100,000 FTE compared to the overall decrease of 5.5% in machine-related deaths per 100,000 FTE for the sector.

There was an annual decline of 6.6% in excavator-related fatalities per 100,000 FTE, followed by a 3.4% decline in cranes, 6.9% in loaders, and a 7.9% decline in road grading and surfacing machines.

Inferences from the Data

  • Between 1992 and 2010, the total number of work-related deaths caused by machines as well as the overall machine-related occupational fatality rate per 100,000 FTE declined notably. Machine-related fatalities were the highest among workers in the age group of 65 and above. While tractor-related fatality rates dropped over the 19-year period, tractors were still responsible for the most significant number of machine-related occupational fatalities.
  • The agriculture/forestry/fishing sector witnessed the most substantial number of machine-related fatalities and also had the highest fatality rate per 100,000 FTE. Tractor-related fatality rates per 100,000 FTE remained high from 2003 to 2010. Machine-related fatality rate per 100,000 FTE was the highest among workers aged 75 and above.
  • In the agriculture/forestry/fishing sector, the risk of fatal injuries increases considerably with the age of the workers. One of the possible reasons is that older workers are more likely to use old tractors that do not have rollover protection systems (ROPS) and other such safeguards. So, to reduce the risk of machine-related fatalities in this sector, older equipment need to be retrofitted with safety features like ROPS, or they need to be replaced with newer, safer models.
  • Machine-related accidents were more common among the self-employed than regular workers. It makes sense since a large number of self-employed workers are employed in industries like construction and agriculture, which have high occupational fatality rates. Since they do not have a stable income, they tend to work more extended hours compared to other types of workers.
  • Also, self-employed workers are not covered by federal and state level OSHA programs. So, they are less likely to follow safe work practices, and employers are less likely to educate and train them on workplace safety like they do with regular workers. This is why they account for a disproportionately large share of workplace accident victims.
  • There was a 41% decline in the overall machine-related fatality rate. There was a 34% decline in mobile machinery related fatalities and a 64% decline in stationary machinery about deaths. The steep decline in stationary machinery-related deaths can be attributed to two factors. First, a large percentage of the workforce has shifted from manufacturing to services. Secondly, the introduction of new safety features and engineering modifications have made stationary machinery considerably safer to operate.
  • In comparison, the decline in mobile machinery related fatalities was less pronounced. The reason is that mobile machines are commonly used in industries like construction, agriculture, and mining, where workers are required to operate them in outdoor work settings, where it is difficult to control and navigate them. In contrast, stationary machines are generally performed in a protected, assembly-line environment, where there are plenty of safeguards in place.

Key Takeaways

Machines play an integral role in our society, and it is impossible to survive without them. However, in the absence of proper safeguards, working with machines can be risky.

Physical contact with both power-driven and mechanical equipment can result in injuries and deaths in the workplace. Therefore, it is vital for employers to create and implement workplace policies and safety systems that help to reduce the incidence of worker accidents and injuries.

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