On-the-job deaths in Maryland spiked last year to 102

59% increase is largest for state in a decade

national trend is down

November 11, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

From the sniper attacks that killed a Maryland bus driver to the collapse of a Rockville parking lot that crushed three construction workers, the number of on-the-job fatalities across the state grew by more than 50 percent in 2002, according to statistics released yesterday.

Though the deaths - many of them homicides and highway crashes - represent a sliver of Maryland's work force of about 2.4 million, the rise marks the state's largest annual increase in a decade. The spike in Maryland's numbers comes at a time when the workplace fatalities across the country are dropping.

The number of occupational deaths in Maryland jumped to 102 in 2002, from 64 in 2001, according to the figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the number of work fatalities nationwide fell to 5,524 in 2002, from 5,915 a year earlier.

"Maryland tends to average more in the low 80s, so last year [2001] was especially low and this year seemed to be especially high, and we don't know exactly what contributes to that," said Sheila Watkins, regional commissioner for the Bureau of Labor Statistics' mid-Atlantic region. "Both years seem to be different from the norm."

Workplace violence has become such a problem nationwide that there is even a special category of insurance to cover it.

It covers everything from public relations during or after the incident to independent security to medical, rehabilitation and counseling costs, said Elizabeth Mosely, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute in Washington.

"It is a risk, and employers have to protect themselves against these types of incidents, and this is just another form of protection for the employer," Mosely said.

The 35-year-old bus driver, Conrad Johnson, for instance, was a victim of last year's sniper shootings, struck by a bullet as he stood in his commuter bus in Silver Spring on the morning of Oct. 22.

(Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps the identities of workplace fatality victims confidential to protect their privacy, Johnson was on the job and in Maryland at the time he was killed.)

Three North Carolina construction workers were killed about a year ago when an unfinished parking garage in Rockville that they were working in collapsed. That incident prompted their employer, Bruckner Steel Erection, to change its safety and health policy.

Reputation on line

Now, the Graham, N.C., company requests a letter from the controlling contractor on each job saying that the foundation and other parts of the buildings meet design specifications and are at least 75 percent of their design strength.

"By having something in writing, it certainly is going to make the controlling contractor and the subcontractors who install the foundation a little more cognitive of, `Have we done this right and do we give these folks a letter saying that?' and basically putting their company's and their reputations on the line," said Chip Pocock, Bruckner's risk and safety manager.

There were 25 deaths in Maryland's construction industry last year, up from 19 in 2001. Stephen Bisson, a statistical administrator with Maryland's Occupational Safety and Health agency, said that figure increased because of the large amounts of construction in the state.

Highway accidents and homicides were the leading causes of workplace deaths in Maryland, with 22 of each last year.

Homicides at work, which include shootings and stabbings, are typically a result of holdups at gas stations and retail stores, said Watkins of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Highway crashes

Highway crashes include truck drivers and salespeople driving to a sales call, but they do not include accidents during the commute to or from work. Nationwide, highway crashes for years have been a leading cause of death at work, and in 2002 they accounted for a quarter of the country's workplace fatalities.

"There are just a lot of people that are driving as part of their occupation, so that historically remains the leading cause of on- the-job fatalities," Watkins said.

The biggest problem is drivers not paying attention to the road - whether they're using a cell phone, drinking coffee, putting on makeup or even reading while driving, said Keith Goddard, commissioner of labor and industry for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which oversees Maryland Occupational Safety and Health.

Goddard's department has 50 inspector positions to regulate Maryland's 130,000 employers - though about a third of the inspector jobs are vacant and Goddard is working to fill them.

To prevent highway accidents on the job, rumble strips, the ridges on the edge of highways, were introduced over the past five to seven years to help drivers to snap back to attention if they swerve off the road.

Highway construction areas are brightly marked and fines are doubled in construction areas to deter drivers from speeding through and injuring workers, Goddard said.

Still, driver attentiveness remains a problem.

"Those [signs] are meant as a deterrent," Goddard said.

"What we are finding is that a lot of people ignore these things, the deterrents, and people get hit working on highways. ... Plastic cones don't stop vehicles."

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