Workplace fatality rate ticks down in Michigan

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
  • The rate fell from 3.6 occupational fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2010 to 3.4 in 2012.
  • The number of fatal work injuries in Michigan rose from 120 in 2007 to 133 in 2013,
  • Transportation accidents continue to be the leading cause of fatal work injuries.
  • Men lose their lives in work-related accidents far more often than women.

Michigan's rate of job-related deaths has declined in recent years, indicating possible progress toward safer workplaces.

But as more people are working, the actual number of fatalities remains higher than before the start of the Great Recession.

According to government statistics, 133 people died of job-related injuries in Michigan last year. That's up from 120 in 2007, before the economy soured and the state's unemployment rate soared.

"I don't think the increase in fatal occupational injuries means that Michigan is becoming a more dangerous place to work," said Debra Chester, project coordinator for Michigan Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation.

"But I think the economy has taken a toll. Businesses have had to do more with less, and it's a matter of refocusing attention on (safety)."

Michigan's rate of on-the-job deaths declined from 3.6 per 100,000 workers in 2010 to 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2012, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. The 2013 rate won't be available until next year.

The U.S. rate in 2012 was 3.4 per 100,000 — the same as Michigan's.

In 2007, before the start of the Great Recession, Michigan's rate stood at 2.9 per 100,000 workers, compared with the national rate of 4.0 that year.

Both the fatality rate and the actual number of deaths plunged from 2007-09 in Michigan, as the state slid into its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Deaths bottomed out at 94 in 2009, and the fatality rate dipped to 2.3. The next year, as the fatality rate spiked, the number of deaths soared to 146.

While the economic rebound is the biggest driver of the rise in the number of deaths as businesses do more with fewer workers, a couple of things haven't changed: Transportation accidents continue to be the leading cause of fatal work injuries, and men are more likely to die on the job than women.

Men, who account for 52 percent of the state's workers, made up 90 percent of fatally injured workers in Michigan last year. In 2009, they were 89 percent.

MIFACE monitors work-related deaths and is a joint project of Michigan State University's College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The project is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Last month alone, two transportation accidents grabbed headlines in Metro Detroit.

On Sept. 26, the driver of a waste hauling truck was killed when he struck a pedestrian bridge over the Southfield Freeway in Detroit and it collapsed.

Three weeks before that in Clinton Township, a dump truck driver was electrocuted when he was unloading the vehicle and his truck's lift stuck a power line.

Lara Dowdy, director of the Suburban Truck Driver Training School in Romulus, said the trucking industry is well aware of the potential for fatal work injuries. She said that's why reputable carriers and driving schools invest time, energy and money in safety.

"Safety has to be a priority for us and the industry," she said. "Truck drivers know they have a lot of responsibilities while on the road with a loaded or unloaded semi tractor trailer."

Nash Alqirsh, 34, of Dearborn, a student at Dowdy's school, said he's keenly aware of the need to be cautious when behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer.

"I have to be concerned about safety when you're driving a truck," he said. "You're operating a big machine that can kill people or yourself easily if you're not careful."

Last year in Michigan, transportation accounted for 42 fatal occupational injuries, or 32 percent of all on-the-job deaths. The second-largest cause of fatal accidents last year at work was violence and other injuries by people or animals.

Those incidents caused 40 deaths, or 30 percent of all fatal occupational injuries, in 2013, according to state data.

By comparison, in 2009 there were 27 transportation-related deaths, or 29 percent of all fatal occupational injuries. Assaults and violent acts were second, 24 percent.

The state has a labor force of 4.8 million, according to the census.

State officials said the Labor Department's numbers on fatal work injuries alone don't tell the whole story here.

Program-related fatal occupational injuries — those that fall under the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration's jurisdiction and related to violations of state health and safety workplace standards — declined in Michigan from 44 in 2004 to 27 last year, according to MIOSHA.

Part of the state's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, MIOSHA compiles data on work-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

The U.S. Labor Department's numbers include fatalities over which MIOSHA has no jurisdiction, such as transportation accidents, homicides, suicides and even heart attacks, said Tanya Baker, a Department of Regulatory and Licensing Affairs spokeswoman.

"Over the past 10 years, the number of program-related fatalities has fluctuated, but the trend has been going down," Baker said. "And MIOSHA has also seen a long-term decrease in work-related fatalities compared with the 1980s and 1990s."

For example, MIOSHA reported 73 program-related fatal work injuries in 1987 and its highest number, 87, in 1999.

Chester said she thinks the state's still-mending economy is behind the rise in fatal work injuries in Michigan over the past several years.

"Businesses are dealing with competing priorities," she said. "They've had to spend money for safety training or equipment maintenance on other things."

She also said she thinks most fatal work accidents happen at smaller businesses where people in charge of making sure the company is complying with safety standards are "wearing 15 different hats" and safety sometimes falls through the cracks.

Still, Chester said she expects the situation will get better.

"Sadly, I think we're kind of a holding pattern right now," she said.

"But as the state stabilizes its economy and businesses pick up, they'll start to think more about safety and the numbers (of fatal work injuries) will come back down."

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Michigan's most dangerous jobs

Here are the five occupations that accounted for the most fatal work injuries in Michigan in 2013:

Transportation and material moving: 30

Construction and extraction: 23

Management: 16

Sales and related occupations: 11

Installation, maintenance, and repair: 7

Source: Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs