How and Why So Many Employees Die on the Job in Virginia
No one should have to die because of their job. Unfortunately, workplace fatalities are a fact of life in Virginia. There are entirely too many employee deaths in our state, and most of them are the result of avoidable error or simple negligence.
It isn’t enough, though, for us to say, “This has to stop.” You can’t solve a problem until you understand the problem.
To that end, we’ve gone straight to the source in search of some answers.
Below, you’ll find data on all the worker deaths in Virginia from midyear 1984 to midyear 2017 (the most recent data available), as reported to OSHA.
We can learn a lot from this data: the most common causes of worker deaths in Virginia, why they happen so often, and whether the situation has gotten any better in the last 34 years.
A single preventable death is too many, and the situation in Virginia is a lot worse than that. It’s time for innocent hardworking people to stop losing their lives needlessly while giving their all to an employer. So let’s get to the bottom of the problem.
Worker Deaths in Virginia: How Are They Happening?
Scrolling through the spreadsheet of worker deaths in Virginia is heartbreaking:
“Employee is struck and killed by a tree.”
“Employee is sprayed by farm pesticides and later dies.”
“An employee is caught in a conveyor belt.”
“Employee falls from elevation into a pulper tub and is killed.”
“Employee falls through a circular hole in the floor for a spiral staircase.”
“Employee is killed when gasoline can explodes.”
There are over a thousand of these. 1,508 to be exact. Each is more graphic and unsettling than the next. They’re a reminder of just how fragile life is, and just how dangerous an everyday workplace can be when safety is allowed to slip through the cracks.
Aggregating the OSHA data can be difficult because each death is entered in its own descriptive terms rather than categorized by a general type. For example, “Employee run over by a tractor” is listed separately from “Employee run over by a dump truck.”
To arrive at some insight, we ran an occurrence count, charting the terms and phrases that appear most often across these more than 1,500 on-the-job deaths in Virginia. Here’s what we found (combining similar terms while eliminating non-specific terms and those that occurred fewer than ten times):
|Fall / Falls / Falling / Fell||517|
|Electric / Electrocuted / Shock||311|
|Truck / Tractor / Trailer||173|
|Heart (as in heart attack)||58|
|Caught (as in caught-between accidents)||42|
|Machine / Equipment||32|
|Elevator / Elevated||21|
While this kind of study has its limitations (for instance, an entry with the words “tractor trailer truck” might be counted more than once), it does give Virginians a very good sense of which types of employee deaths happen most often here.
Deaths caused by falls or falling are disproportionately common. These include falls on the ground (e.g. slip and fall), from a height (e.g. falling from a roof or scaffolding), and falling objects (e.g. tools dropped from above).
Vehicle accidents and heart attacks also rank high among the most common reasons for worker deaths in Virginia.
Why Are So Many Virginia Workers Dying on the Job?
While the cumulative OSHA data provides only limited information about the individual deaths that comprise its sums, we can combine that information with what we already know about employee injuries and fatalities in Virginia.
For example, the overwhelming majority of workplace falls are caused by unsafe working conditions, often the result of employer negligence. Common scenarios include:
- Liquid or other slipping hazards on the work floor
- Loose wires or other tripping hazards on the work floor
- Failure to adequately train / warn employees about falling hazards
- Improper ladder safety
- Negligently assembled scaffolding
- Failure to properly restrain equipment used at high elevations
- Failure to enforce proper safety protocol / safety gear requirements
Electrocution, too, is a common cause of on-the-job fatality in Virginia. We see this happen in situations where employers:
- Fail to comply with OSHA regulations on electrical safety,
- Do not properly educate employees on electrical hazards (some of which may be specific to a particular jobsite or to proprietary equipment), or
- Simply skip basic safety steps for the sake of efficiency or cost reduction.
Even heart attacks, which may seem to be unavoidable medical events beyond an employer’s control, are sometimes triggered or exacerbated by unsafe working conditions, such as:
- Excessive heavy lifting
- Inadequate hydration when there is risk of heatstroke
- Employer’s failure to provide breaks or time off as required by law
- Exposure to certain toxic chemicals or triggering events
Simply put, if employers would simply be careful, follow the rules, and obey the laws, the workplace death rate in our state would almost certainly be diminished dramatically.
Are Virginia Workplace Fatalities on the Rise?
The numbers have actually shown some very slight improvement since 1984. The total number of Virginia employee deaths in each charted ten-year period appears below, along with the data from the past few years:
- 1985 through 1994: 490 (average of 49 deaths per year)
- 1995 through 2004: 453 (average of 45.3 deaths per year)
- 2005 through 2014: 443 (average of 44.3 deaths per year)
- 2015 through 2016: 87 (average of 43.5 deaths per year)
- First six months of 2017: 22 (on track for 44 deaths in the year)
As you can see, the average number of deaths has held mostly steady over the last three-and-a-half decades, declining ever so slightly each decade (but with a slight uptick projected for 2017 as last year’s data comes in).
Each of these thousands of deaths represents a heartbroken family. We could cut this rate to a tiny fraction of its current self if only we would band together and demand greater safety and accountability in the workplace.
Schedule a Free Consultation with The Injured Workers Law Firm
No one should pay for their job with their life. If you have lost a loved one in a workplace accident in Virginia, you may be entitled to substantial financial compensation. We work with victims and their families all across the state. Please contact The Injured Workers Law Firm online or call (804) 755-7755 for a free and compassionate consultation today.
About the Author: Michele Lewane
The Injured Workers Law Firm is a Richmond, Virginia based firm solely focused on serving clients with workers' compensation claims in Virginia. If you have questions about your benefits or if you would like more information on the Virginia workers’ compensation system, order our book, “The Ultimate Guide to Workers’ Compensation in Virginia” , or call our office today (804) 755-7755.