Construction fatalities fall amid ongoing safety concerns

Experts caution against overly optimistic interpretations of health and safety data
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Workplace fatalities in 2020, a year marked by unemployment that reached over 14% in the early days of the pandemic, fell by almost 11%, according to data released last year.

Total workplace deaths fell 10.7% from 5,333 in 2019 to 4,764 in 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in December 2021.

“Reacting to the latest fatality data brings unique challenges because the numbers may not paint a clear picture of the reality of 2020,” Brad Giles, ASSP president, said in a statement. “Any reported decrease in worker deaths is encouraging, but this data does not reflect the devastating impact of COVID-19 on many worker populations.”

BLS notes that the data in the report only includes fatalities precipitated by a workplace injury. The agency states that it’s “possible that a COVID-19-related fatality resulting from an acute injury may be in scope and appear on the [Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries] file. However, information on COVID-19-related fatalities in source data is inconsistent and often unavailable.”

ASSP’s Giles said, “Most occupational incidents are preventable given today’s technologies and proven safety and health strategies. Employers must be more proactive in adopting voluntary national consensus standards and implementing measures such as safety and health management systems to protect workers in all industries.”

As an essential business, many construction firms were able to continue operating through the pandemic while those in other industries were closed in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. Workers in the transportation and construction industries accounted for nearly half of all fatalities in 2020, according to BLS.

Related: Confronting a lethal stigma—addressing mental health in the construction industry

Data from Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR)’s 2021 Construction Safety Management Survey, conducted with Dodge Data & Analytics, found that although COVID-19 was the top health and safety concern for construction firms, union firms and general contractors were more likely to be concerned than other types of firms. Falls remain the No. 1 health and safety fear for nonunion firms, a concern shared almost equally by specialty trades (26%) and general contractors (21%), according to the November 2021 data bulletin.

“The impact of COVID-19 on the construction industry has been substantial, as has been documented in previous data bulletins,” CPWR wrote. “Although many conditions have returned to pre-pandemic levels, the impact of COVID-19 remains significant with 64% of construction businesses reporting a moderate to large negative effect of COVID-19 by October 2021.”

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