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Workplace deaths on the rise in U.S.

More Americans died on the job last year, with the increase concentrated among older employees as well as self-employed and contract workers. Preliminary federal figures released last month for 2014 put the workplace death total at 4,679, up 2 percent from the final count of 4,585 for 2013.

The new figures amount to the highest preliminary death total in six years, and the total will almost certainly grow by the time final numbers for 2014 are issued in the spring.

Growth in employment played a big role in the higher fatality figures reported today, but experts said other factors were involved, too.

Overall, the death rate was 3.3 per 100,000 workers last year, the same as the final tally for 2013, but up from 2013’s preliminary level of 3.2.

While Latinos suffered the highest rate of on the job deaths, 3.6 per 100,000 workers, their number was down from a final rate of 3.9 last year. The rate for whites held steady, but those for African-American and Asian-American workers edged up. In 2014, the rates were 3.4 for whites, 3.0 for African-Americans and 1.7 for Asian-Americans.

Women suffered 13 percent more fatal injuries in 2014, but still accounted for only 359 fatalities, 8 percent of the total.

The preliminary toll for workers 55 and older rose 9 percent in 2014 to 1,621, the highest ever recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ census. Rebecca Reindel, a safety and health specialist with the AFL-CIO labor federation, pointed out that the bulk of the increase in the older worker category came among people age 65 and up.

“We have people working longer now than they have in the past, and older workers can be at great risk for safety and health hazards,” Reindel said. “Too often employers want the worker to adapt to the process rather than designing a process to adapt to the worker. And, in an aging work force, those problems become more prominent.”

The rise in deaths among people regarded as self-employed or contract workers comes as federal and state labor officials increasingly are concerned about workers being misclassified as independent contractors by employers trying to skirt wage and workers compensation requirements.

According to the new federal figures, fatalities among self-employed workers – which declined sharply in 2013 – bounced back up 10 percent last year, to 1,047. The increase was 6 percent among contracted workers, bringing that category up to 797.

Federal officials routinely identify, in the months after preliminary fatality totals such as today’s are disclosed, more deaths caused by on-the-job hazards. The additional fatalities, which are reported in the spring, have averaged 173 a year over the last five years.

Keshia M. Pollack, an expert on occupational injuries at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, noted that many workplace deaths continue to be from trips and falls, and increased fatalities occurred in industries such as mining, agriculture, manufacturing and construction. “There are ways to prevent these deaths,” she said, through “workplace policies, training programs, the use of proper protective equipment – all of those things together.”

FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.

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