The newest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that fatal workplace injuries increased almost nine percent from 2020 to 2021. All told, 5,190 workers lost their lives on the job, creating profound losses for those workers’ families, friends, coworkers and communities.
However, as we look to identify workplace safety trends, we should keep in mind that in 2020, millions of workers were out of a job or working remotely because of the pandemic. In 2021, many of those people went back to work. If we compare 2021 fatality data to the pre-pandemic year of 2019 – when 5,333 workers died on the job – we see a three percent decline in overall workplace fatalities.
Looking specifically at the construction industry, on-the-job deaths declined for the third year in a row, dropping to their lowest level in five years. Construction industry deaths are down 11 percent since 2019. The fatality rate for construction workers also dropped, from 13.5 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2020 to 12.3 in 2021.
“There will always be more we can do to protect the lives of LIUNA members and raise the bar for all workers on the job,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Yet in the construction industry, the tireless efforts of the entire LIUNA family are paying off in safer jobsites and healthier LIUNA members.”
Key Takeaways Across Hazard Categories
- Transportation: Across all industries, fatal transportation incidents rose 11.5 percent and now make up 38 percent of all work-related deaths. In construction, fatal transportation incidents decreased by 15 percent.
- Workplace violence: Workplace homicides increased and now make up 9.3 percent of all on-the-job deaths. Gun violence was responsible for 80 percent of these deaths, and women and Black workers were disproportionately the victims. In construction, workplace violence fatalities decreased from 55 in 2020 to 40 in 2021.
- Suicide prevention: On-the-job suicides declined 8.9 percent across all industries, suggesting the increased focus on mental health and employers’ role in supporting workers is having a positive effect.
Hazard Area to Watch: Harmful Substances and Environments
Of the five major categories tracked by the BLS, construction industry deaths dropped in three of them. The two exceptions were falls and exposure to harmful substances and environments. In construction, deaths from exposure to harmful substances and environments rose 15 percent, from 174 to 204.
One major factor is that this category includes unintentional overdoses from drug use. For general industry, the number of deaths in this category hit an all-time high, and almost 60 percent of worker deaths were caused by unintentional overdose. It’s likely the majority of these overdose deaths were caused by fentanyl, which is showing up much more often in illegal drugs.
However, the spike in this category can’t be attributed to fentanyl alone. The share of unintentional overdose deaths was also just below 60 percent in 2020, which means other causes – such as overexposure to toxic fumes and gasses, contact with solvents or lack of oxygen in confined spaces – were also responsible.
Both unintentional overdoses and contact with other harmful substances should be of special concern to construction employers. Construction workers are more likely to be prescribed opioids and to develop a dependence on them, and many toxic substances are common on construction sites. LIUNA affiliates can order What to Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Opioids, OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard or our Toxics pocket guide for more information.
Black and Hispanic Workers Remain at Higher Risk Across Industries
Of all the trends in the 2021 general industry data, one came up again and again. Black and Hispanic workers experienced disproportionately higher fatality rates than their peers. The fatality rate for Black workers was 10 percent higher than average; the fatality rate for Hispanic workers was 20 percent higher.
“This report makes devastatingly clear that workers of color are disproportionately losing their lives on the job, and it is the mission of the labor movement to fight for equity and ensure that safety is a guaranteed right,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler.
Some of this safety gap is likely due to Black and Hispanic workers being more likely to hold riskier jobs. We saw this trend during the pandemic, when Black and Hispanic populations were hit hard by COVID-19 – in part because they are disproportionately in frontline jobs. In other cases, workers may not feel comfortable speaking up about unsafe conditions or haven’t received sufficient safety training in a language they understand.
Many racial and ethnic minority groups also experience health disparities around conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The safety disparities faced by Black and Hispanic workers in the U.S., like these health disparities, are longstanding and persist across many different hazards. To learn more, LIUNA affiliates can order the Fund’s publication, Racial and Ethnic Minority Health: Understanding the Causes Behind Health Gaps and Their Impact.
All in all, the latest report from the BLS points to progress being made in the construction industry when it comes to worker safety and health. By paying attention to trends and taking steps to ensure all workers experience a safe workplace, we can do even better.