Feds Report Fewer Workplace Deaths in New England

November 24, 2009

New England recorded fewer work-related deaths last year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday, a trend that could be at least partly attributable to the economic downturn.

Preliminary figures for the six-state region showed 136 workplace fatalities in 2008, down from 163 in the previous year. The agency said the final statistics will be released in April.

The two New England states with the largest work forces — Massachusetts and Connecticut — accounted for two-thirds of the region’s occupational deaths in 2008.

Sixty-one workers died in Massachusetts, 14 fewer than in 2007. Transportation accidents accounted for 18 deaths, or 30 percent of the fatalities. Fifteen deaths occurred from falls, making it the second-leading cause of death at 25 percent. Ten workers died as a result of exposure to harmful substances or environment.

Connecticut recorded 28 worker deaths, down from 38 the previous year. Nine of the fatalities were transportation-related, while “contact with objects and equipment” accounted for six deaths.

Denis McSweeney, regional commissioner for the bureau, cited the slowing economy as one of the major reasons why there were fewer workplace deaths both in New England and the nation as a whole.

“Industries that have historically accounted for a significant portion of fatalities (are where) the employment is down, as are the hours worked,” said McSweeney.

Violent assaults and self-inflected injuries accounted for eight workplace deaths in Massachusetts and six in Connecticut. Both states reported four suicides in 2008, while in the U.S. as a whole there were 251 workplace suicides, McSweeney said, a 28 percent increase over 2007 and perhaps traceable to anxiety over economic conditions.

Maine and Rhode Island were the only New England states where worker deaths increased, according to the preliminary figures. Fatalities in Maine rose to 24 from 21 in 2007, with nearly two-thirds of the deaths transportation-related. Rhode Island had six deaths, one more than in the previous year.

Seven workplace fatalities were recorded in New Hampshire, half as many as the year before. Vermont had 10 deaths, the same number as in 2007, with four of them occurring from contact with objects and equipment.

For a death to be recorded, the bureau said the employee must have been engaged in a legal work activity or present as a requirement of his job. Deaths that occur while a person is commuting to or from work are not included. Deaths from long-term illnesses are included only when there is ample documentation to trace the death to workplace exposure, McSweeney said.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the independent Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said that while the numbers of fatalities fluctuate year-to-year, her organization is more concerned about “who is being killed and why they are being killed.”

“The vast majority of these deaths are preventable, and in this day and age after OSHA being around for 40 years, employers should be aware of measures that can save lives, and they aren’t doing them for a range of reasons,” said Goldstein-Gelb.

According to the group’s own research, immigrants accounted for a disproportionately high number of the workers killed in Massachusetts in 2008.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 45 of the 61 victims in Massachusetts were white, non-Hispanic, while 10 were Hispanic or Latino and four were black. Twenty-one of the 28 deaths in Connecticut occurred among white, non-Hispanics as did all but one of the fatalities in Maine.

The overwhelming number of workers killed in New England in 2008 were male (124) and between the ages of 25 and 64.

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