What Keeps Me Up at Night—Workplace Safety

By Greg Offner

Talk about your sleepless nights; based upon the latest statistics (Dec. 2023) from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5,486 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2022, a 5.7-percent increase from 5,190 in 2021. Just a frightening statistic! The fatal work injury rate was 3.7 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, up from 3.6 per 100,000 FTE in 2021. These data points are from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). What in the waterbed mattress world is going on? What’s the cause of the spike? Who’s to blame?

Rather than drill down to the details state by state I will share the facts and figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for my birth state, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The big bang, wake me up statistic is the workplace fatalities in Pennsylvania reached their highest level of workplace fatalities in nearly 10 years! More Pennsylvania workers died as a result of on-the-job, workplace injuries in 2022 than in any other year in nearly a decade, according to data released in December of 2023 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Alarming Growth in Fatal Incidents

One hundred eighty-three Keystone State workers were KIA in 2022, with 77 incidents stemming from transportation-related incidents. Of those transportation-related incidents, 29 involved roadway collisions with another vehicle and 19 collisions involved a struck animal or object on the side of the roadway. Operating a motor vehicle on the highways and byways of PA has grown more dangerous than ever despite making vehicles safer and the Billions spent improving roadways and highways.

In 2022, PA saw twenty-four deaths attributed to falls, slips or trips; 19 deaths involved a victim struck by an object or equipment and 27 stemmed from exposure to harmful substances or environments, according to the data. These statistics are more common to workplace fatalities. Regardless, 183 fatal injuries is the highest number of injuries Pennsylvania has recorded since 2013, which also saw 183 deadly workplace injuries reported.

2022 workplace deaths in Pennsylvania were largely represented by private sector employees, according to the data. 169 victims were employed privately, while one victim worked for the federal government and 10 worked for local governments. Roughly 123,000 nonfatal workplace injuries were reported in the state in the private industry; another 3,400 injuries were reported impacting those working for the state government. These statistics should keep everyone awake at night!

Sobering Statistics Nationwide

The Pennsylvania data reflects national trends, which saw a 5.7% increase from fatal work injuries in 2021. In fact, a U.S. worker died every 96 minutes from a work-related injury in 2022 compared to 101 minutes in 2021, according to the government data.

Texas saw the highest number of incidents in 2022 at 578 workplace deaths; California, Florida and New York followed behind at 504, 307 and 251 deaths, respectively. Pennsylvania ranked in seventh place for total fatal workplace injuries. Black and Hispanic workers saw the highest increases in fatality rates nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials said.

Black workers’ fatality rate increased 12.4 percent and Hispanic workers’ rate rose by 10.4 percent from last year. The latest nationwide statistics serve as “a harsh reminder of the important work we must do, especially for Black and Hispanic workers who saw the largest increase in workplace fatalities,” OSHA said in a statement. In Pennsylvania, 27 Black non-Hispanic workers died in 2022, up 50 percent from the 18 unnecessary deaths in 2021. The fatality rate decreased in the Keystone State for Hispanic workers in 2022, down more than 23 percent, with 16 workplace deaths in 2022.

Transportation incidents remained the most frequent type of fatal event in the U.S., accounting for 37.7 percent of all occupational fatalities, according to the data. There were 2,066 fatal injuries from transportation incidents in 2022, a 4.2 percent increase from 1,982 in 2021.

In Pennsylvania, transportation-related occupational deaths also spiked, up 30.5 percent from 59 deaths in 2021 and up 24 percent from 62 deaths in 2019. Warehousing, transportation, and construction also represented the industries with the most at-work fatalities in the Keystone State in 2022, with 54 victims in transportation/warehousing and 28 victims in construction. Of the 54 transportation workers, 41 were employed in truck transportation and four worked in transit/ground passenger transportation. Other industries reporting deadly workplace incidents in 2022 were education/health services (13 deaths), manufacturing (10 deaths), waste management (seven deaths), retail trade (seven deaths) and repair/maintenance (five deaths).

Preventable Hazards Remain

In 2022, a Western PA local news outlet, The Patch, reported an employee at a Penn Township food processing plant died after falling into a bean hopper. The same year, a mining scoop operator died after he was struck by an overhanging rock and a construction worker died after falling out of a bucket truck on the Parkway East, according to the news. OSHA officials fined several facilities in Pennsylvania throughout 2022, from a Birdsboro poultry processing facility with multiple safety hazards (including “willful, serious and repeat violations”); a Maryland residential framing contractor cited for fall hazards and a lack of provided eye protection at a Mechanicsburg work site; a hot tub manufacturer that reportedly overexposed workers to dangerous chemicals in Northumberland; and a Strasburg framing contractor cited for fall hazards at a PennDOT salt storage stockpile in Luzerne County and volumes of OSHA citations were written for urban areas like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Allentown. What has me tossing and turning is every one of these “companies” likely has Safety Plans that probably address procedures for safe work, and didn’t follow them, or willfully ignored them.

OSHA, which covers most private sector employers and some public sector employers, says hazard violations continue to mount with at least three employers cited in 2023 for similar preventable dangers they were cited for in 2022. The federal agency even partnered with state and academic leaders in late 2022 to reduce exposure to workplace hazards, establishing an alliance with the Lehigh Career and Technical Institute and Pennsylvania OSHA Consultation to protect warehouse and storage workers. Along the Interstate routes like I-22, I-33, I-78 and I-476 corridors there has been a rapid growth of e-commerce, the warehousing industry has expanded significantly. OSHA is doing their part, proactively partnering with their alliance members to provide information, resources and training to reduce and prevent the hazardous conditions that warehousing, and storage workers continuously face every day. There are also State House Bills seeking to improve workplace safety in the Pennsylvania Legislature and they widely vary by industry and occupation, though one proposed measure in the Pennsylvania Senate aims to bolster health and safety standards for public employees across the state and establish a Pennsylvania Occupational Safety and Health Review Board that can conduct workplace inspections and impose penalties. One of these bills, known as the Jake Schwab Worker Safety Bill (after an Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority mechanic fatally injured at work in 2014), the measure would extend OSHA protections to public sector workers in Pennsylvania. All I can say is, I hope it allows us to sleep better at night!

Fostering Better Safety Awareness

If we want the perfect night’s sleep, we need to ensure all workers, Public and Private Sector, as well as our enlisted military facility maintenance and service workers are provided and deserve the right to perform their duties and obligations in an environment that is free from unnecessary health and safety hazards. Training, training resources, stand-downs, planning and mandating every worker has both, so they can define a specific hazard awareness for their task, and develop a safe plan of action for their job at hand. This is a safety absolute. We can no longer depend on legislation, enforcement, or corporate leadership to keep us safe. It’s up to us.

Greg Offner is a Criminal Justice Consultant serving the Planning, Design and Construction Community, a valued member of the CN Editorial Advisory Board, and a regular contributor to Correctional News.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Correctional News.