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Crunching the Numbers
 
OSHA's data-collection program is helping the
agency focus its resources where the need is the greatest.


by Fred Walters


Without the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, many chronic problems would never improve. OSHA is busy doing just that to determine how the agency can focus its efforts on reducing job-related deaths in the American workplace.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nation's 2001 workplace fatality count of 5,900 was down less than 1 percent compared to 2000, excluding the September 11 terrorist attacks. But because total national employment declined slightly for the year, the occupational fatality rate held steady at 4.3 deaths per 100,000 workers.

OSHA fatality investigations are a major source of data for BLS. During investigations, OSHA collects information about the workplaces where fatalities occur, as well as about the circumstances and workers involved. Compliance officers in the field then enter this information into the agency's Integrated Management Information System (IMIS).


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According to Richard Rinehart, epidemiologist in OSHA's Directorate of Construction, "This effort allows OSHA to expand upon the national data provided by BLS, and helps the agency to track trends and identify the types of work and activities most associated with fatal incidents." An analysis of fatality data helps the agency make decisions about how to allocate resources to reduce work-related fatalities, says Rinehart. Based on its research and evaluation of fatality-related information, OSHA considers two groups of workers to be among the most vulnerable:

  • Construction industry workers, because their fatality rate is consistently higher than the average for all industries; and

  • Hispanic workers, because they have a higher-than-average fatality rate, may experience language barriers, and are often disproportionately employed in high-risk industries and trades.
Every year, more workers die in construction incidents than in accidents in any other single industry. For 2001, BLS reports that 1,225 workers in the construction industry were fatally injured at work, with about one-third of these deaths resulting from fatal falls. Because analysis of national fatality data shows that falls are a leading cause of deaths in construction, OSHA has created numerous local emphasis programs throughout the country that direct agency resources to worksites where falls are most likely to occur.

Among the many high-hazard jobs in the construction industry is erecting telecommunication towers, according to an analysis of BLS data by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). With the increased demand for wireless communications in recent years, this industry has grown substantially and its estimated fatality rate is one of the highest in the construction industry. Based on these findings, OSHA now works closely with NIOSH and the National Association of Tower Erectors to help reduce these losses.

Hispanic workers are at a higher risk than non-Hispanic workers of dying from workplace injuries. The fatality rate for Hispanic workers increased by 7 percent from 5.6 to 6 deaths per 100,000 workers between 2000 and 2001, while the number of fatalities increased from 815 to 891. As one of many actions taken to address this problem, OSHA launched a new fatality data collection procedure that uses a specially designed questionnaire to collect information about potential language barriers and other job-related risk factors. In addition, the agency has formed an executive-level Hispanic Worker Task Force, which uses the information from this questionnaire as one of its tools in making recommendations.

OSHA is now working to improve the data it collects during fatality investigations. Updating the way it collects and uses fatality data is one of many initiatives and ideas that OSHA is pursuing to find new ways to combat the continuing problem of work-related fatalities.

"We have great concern over the increase in deaths among construction workers, Hispanic and Latino individuals and those dying from falls," said OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw when BLS released its 2001 workplace fatality data. "Our challenge is to continue to improve our programs, fine tune our systems and work harder than ever to drive down the fatality numbers even further. We won't stop until we are successful. You have my word on that." JSHQ


Walters is a writer-editor in OSHA's Office of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.