COSH Releases List of 2011's Most Notable Occupational Fatalities

While 2011 can't compete with 2010 in terms of high-profile occupational disasters such as the Upper Big Branch Mine and the Deepwater Horizon explosions, the year featured its own preventable workplace tragedies that expose the need for safety improvements. From the half-dozen workers who lost their lives in a Kansas grain elevator explosion to the electrocution of two teenage agricultural workers, these recent fatal occupational events reveal that American workers must be better protected, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH).

"…[T]he incidents that made the Top 10 list in 2011 show that in many ways we still have a long way to go in terms of protecting our country's working men and women, " said Tom O'Connor, executive director of COSH. "It's important to realize that the fatalities that made the list this year represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Literally thousands of workers are killed on the job each year and most of them never make the headlines."

COSH’s list of the top 10 workplace tragedies in 2011 includes the following incidents:

1. A Kansas grain elevator explosion results in six worker fatalities. An October 2011 explosion at a grain elevator at the Bartlett Grain Co. in Atchison, Kan., killed six Bartlett employees.Authorities continue to investigate and no penalties or fines have been assessed yet in connection with the incident.

2. Tennessee dust fires kill five workers and injury three others. Since January 2011, five employees have died and three others were seriously injured in three separate accidents at Hoeganaes Corp.’s Gallatin, Tenn., location. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reported that uncontrolled dust hazards and an absence of safety measures at Hoeganaes, a manufacturer of metal powders, were behind the incidents. The Tennessee OSH agency fined the company $129,000 in connection with the incidents.

3. Two teenager workers are electrocuted, eight others are injured at Monsanto Corp. in Illinois. Two teenage girls working for Monsanto Corp. died in July 2011 when they mistakenly wandered near a field irrigation system and were electrocuted. Eight other workers were injured in the incident. The girls’ job entailed walking up and down the rows of corn, removing the tassels to encourage cross-pollination. Current federal labor standards allow children as young as twelve to work on farms.

4. Manhole accident claims two worker lives in North Carolina. Two men working for Triangle Paving and Grading Co. suffocated in June 2011 when they entereda manhole in Durham, N.C., without proper safety equipment. An investigation by an area television station revealed the company had more than 60 construction-related safety violations and more than $200,000 in fines, including a previous worker fatality. The city of Durham subsequently is considering changes to its public-bid process.

5. Oil rig explosion kills three in Wyoming. Three workers lost their lives when the fuel line they were laying at an oilrig that was to be put back into production exploded on Aug. 9, 2011. The blast happened as the workers were laying a fuel line that was intended to supply a heater treatment facility that separates oil from water as they are pumped out of the ground, according to media accounts. A bill that would have increased employer penalties for workplace safety violations in the state died early last year in the Wyoming legislature.

6. Las Vegas trench collapse claims two lives. In May 2011, two Las Vegas city employees died when the walls of a nine-foot-deep trench they were working in collapsed on them. The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Bureau determined that the accident was preventable and noted that there were no support mechanisms in place to prevent the trench's collapse and that the trench had not been inspected before the two workers were sent into it. The Nevada bureau has issued fines totaling nearly $81,000 in connection with the incident.

7. Gas plant explosion kills two in Kentucky. A chemical explosion at a Carbide Industries plant killed two workers and injured two others in Louisville, Ky., in March 2011. Emergency responders said the fatally injured workers were in a control room on the second floor of the five-story building, just above a furnace where the calcium carbide was produced. According to press accounts, Carbide Industries had a lengthy record of safety violations and the plant had not been inspected for 4 years.

8. Group home resident kills mental health worker in Massachusetts. In January 2011, a mental health worker in Revere, Mass., was stabbed to death by a resident with a long history of violence and mental illness. OSHA determined that the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, which operated the facility, exposed employees to the "hazard of physical assault" while providing services to clients and failed to develop and implement adequate measures to protect employees against such assaults. OSHA fined the mental health agency $7,000.

9. Backhoe rollover kills one worker in Maine. A worker died in July 2011 in Bangor, Maine, when a backhoe rolled over and crushed him as he was laying a natural gas line. OSHA cited his employer, Bowdoin Excavations LLC, for four workplace safety violations, including operating construction equipment on unsafe roadways. OSHA concluded that the backhoe overturned when it was operated across a slope ranging from 32- to 40-degree grade and proposed fines totaling $13,600.

10. Kentucky coal mine highwall collapse kills two workers. In October 2011, two workers were killed when a wall collapsed on top of the truck they were driving. According to media accounts, the mine's operator, Armstrong Coal, had been cited in April by MSHA for failing to stabilize a highwall. Authorities continue to investigate the incident.

COSH: Update OSHA to Save Lives

O'Connor stressed that because worker fatalities like these and others still occur in America’s workplaces, OSHA needs to be updated and reinvigorated. In particular, he pointed to three areas that would benefit from immediate reform:

· Increase the number of workplace safety inspectors. Currently, about 2,200 inspectors between state and federal workplace safety agencies are tasked with policing more than 8 million workplaces.
· Increase the fines for workplace safety violations. The average fine for a workplace safety violation is only slightly more than $1,000, and the average penalty for a violation involving a fatality is only about $7,000.
· Change the OSHA Act to make it a felony for an employer to knowingly endanger the life of a worker. Under current law, recklessly endangering the life of a worker can garner a misdemeanor charge at most. As a result, criminal prosecutions of the worst violators are nearly impossible in the vast majority of cases.

"OSHA is doing its best to police a 21st-century workplace with 20th-century tools, but it is overmatched and ill-equipped for the task," O'Connor said. "If we have learned anything from the deaths of all the workers who were killed on the job this year, and each year since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into law in 1970, it is that American workers should not have to risk their lives to earn a living."

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