Workplace Deaths Hit All-Time Low

The latest figures from the Labor Department show a sharp decline in workplace fatalities. They're lower than at any point since the department started keeping track.

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Now let's take a moment to consider this number. It's a number that tells us about the economy but also something more. The number is 5,488. Five thousand four hundred eighty-eight workers were killed in the United States last year in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls fatal work injuries. As bad as that number is, it is the lowest in any year since the government began keeping track in 1992. NPR's Libby Lewis has been looking into why.

LIBBY LEWIS: The slowing economy is part of the reason for the drop, but it's not the whole story.

Professor DAVID MICHAELS (George Washington University): On-the-job fatality rates have been dropping for decades.

LEWIS: David Michaels is an expert in occupational safety at the George Washington University School of Public Health.

Prof. MICHAELS: The biggest cause is the change in employment. (Unintelligible) the highest hazard jobs in the United States have moved overseas, and some fortunately we don't have to do anymore.

LEWIS: Michaels points to the decline in manufacturing jobs. The economic slowdown shows up in other areas. Construction is down and so too are total construction deaths. Fewer goods and services are being trucked around the country and that means fewer transportation worker deaths. And Michaels says you can't discount improvements in worker safety in some sectors. Fewer highway workers have been killed thanks to tougher penalties for drivers in work zones.

There are some unsettling figures. In construction, for instance, the number of workers who fell to their deaths on job sites rose to 835. That's the highest number ever. And for the first time in years, police and firefighters made the government's top ten list of most dangerous occupations.

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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