For the first time in ten years, annual Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows an increase in the rate of workplace fatalities compared to the year before.

The data, released in April, shows an increase to 4.1 percent in 2004 from 4.0 percent in 2003.

“While the increase is small and one year does not make a trend, American workers should be concerned about this data,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “We are in the fifth straight year of budget cutting at OSHA, and this increase may be an unfortunate consequence.”

Choosing to stress the positive, however, an OSHA spokesperson pointed out that the 2004 rate remained among the lowest in the nation’s history.

The fatality and injury rates for construction alone are not available, but total construction fatalities rose by 9.1 percent in 2004, from 1131 to 1234.

However, while construction fatalities rose in 2004, work zone fatalities fell – from 99 to 92. This continued a falling trend that began after the peak of 124 in 1999.

“The report had some good news in that fatalities are falling in work zones,” states O’Sullivan. “We think there are three reasons, all interconnected. First, highway work is more highly unionized than other sectors of construction. Second, more of the work is performed by large companies. And, third, our union and its partners have made good progress in promoting job safety in road construction and repair and providing training and certification for highway workers.”

“The rate of unionization is higher at large construction companies than smaller ones which means, in general, larger companies enjoy the benefits of a better trained and, usually, more experienced workforce,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider. “And because of the greater organization among workers, efforts to enhance skills and safety training have a more rapid impact in the union sector. While we have only anecdotal evidence to support our claim, we believe the introduction of the Roadway Safety Program over the last three years has had a significant impact.”

That initiative – developed by a consortium of the Laborers, the Operating Engineers, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the National Asphalt Pavement Association – is a CD-ROM-based training program that covers the 14 most common highway work zone hazards, including night work and silica exposure. With a click of the mouse, the CD switches from English to Spanish to Portuguese or from U.S. units to the metric system. The CD also includes voice files that allow an English-speaking instructor to play all the modules in Spanish or Portuguese. The program can be downloaded for free and more than 3600 copies have been downloaded or distributed since it was posted in 2003.

The multi-language training component is especially useful because broader sections of the workforce in the United States are not native English-speakers. Indeed, the influx of Spanish-speakers may have been part of the problem that has led to an increase in overall workplace fatalities. The data show that the fatality rate among Latino workers was 19 percent higher than the rate for all U.S. workers. Some of that may be due to a lack of adequate safety training in a language they thoroughly understand.

For more information on any aspect of workplace safety and health, contact the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division at 202-628-5465. For information on training and certification of highway workers, call Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund at 860-974-0800.