Fatal work injuries rose in 2010, new data show

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The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, among the 4,690 who died on the job in the U.S. that year.

Gerald Herbert/AP file

The Department of Labor reported today that 4,690 U.S. workers suffered fatal injuries in 2010, a 3 percent increase from 2009.

The higher number in part reflects a string of high-profile disasters in 2010: An explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29; BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11; and a blast at the Tesoro Corp.’s oil refinery in Washington State that killed seven.

Even discounting the 47 deaths from those three events, the toll rose in 2010. In 2009, 4,551 workers died, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The fatality rate rose slightly as well, from 3.5 fatal injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers to 3.6.

The number of workers killed in fires or explosions jumped from 113 in 2009 to 191 in 2010. Work-related transportation deaths increased from 1,795 to 1,857, suicides from 263 to 270.

The number of construction-related deaths fell from 834 to 774 — a probable reflection of a weak housing market and a generally rotten economy in 2010.

“It’s disturbing that there hasn’t been any improvement in workplace fatalities in several years,” said Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO. “It seems like progress has stalled.”

Seminario said she wouldn’t be surprised to see the 2011 fatality numbers go up, given that the economy began to pick up steam last year. “We’ll be looking carefully not only at the numbers but the rates,” she said.

The BLS data release — an update of preliminary numbers put out last year — comes three days before Workers Memorial Day, an international event, started by labor unions, honoring those who have been killed on the job.

Among those who died in 2010 was 19-year-old Emilio DeLeon, who was electrocuted in a construction accident in Grand Island, Neb. His father, Albert, was in Washington last week to attend a Senate hearing on worker safety and put a statement into the record.

“Our family has been to therapy to help us cope with the loss of our son,” DeLeon’s statement reads. “The pain and loss is present when I go to sleep and is there when I wake up in the morning. I have lost my Dad, Mom and Sister, and I have to tell you that losing my Son is the worst feeling I have ever had to endure.”

The construction company that employed Emilio DeLeon was fined only $16,600 for his death by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, even though OSHA had cited the firm for serious safety violations four months prior to the fatal accident. “They were allowed to continue with business as usual,” Albert DeLeon wrote in his statement.

In an email to the Center for Public Integrity, OSHA said:

"On average more than 12 workers die on the job every day, and that reality continues to drive the work of the Labor Department. When the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, the National Safety Council estimated that 14,000 workers died each year on the job. Now, with a workforce that has doubled in size, the annual number of fatalities has dropped significantly. But it's not enough. We cannot relent from our enforcement of laws that keeps our nation's workers safe. One worker killed or injured on the job is too many."

More detailed BLS fatality data can be found here.