Worker Fatalities Fall 17% on Decline in Construction Deaths

U.S. workplace deaths fell 17 percent in 2009 to a record low on a decline in construction fatalities, as unemployment surged to the highest level in a quarter century.

There were 4,340 deaths across all industries, compared with 5,214 a year earlier. Fatalities among private construction firms dropped 16 percent in 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said today in a statement.

Workplace injuries have been falling for more than a decade, according to the National Council of Compensation Insurance. Workers’ compensation insurers that are facing lower sales and rising medical costs may benefit from a decline in job-related accidents as U.S. payrolls shrink. New claims for unemployment jumped 500,000 in the week ended Aug. 14.

“Economic factors played a major role in the fatal work injury decrease in 2009,” the bureau said in the statement.

Construction spending dropped 15 percent in 2009, the worst performance on record, signaling an industry at the forefront of the economic crisis will be slow to rebound.

Construction has “fallen off a cliff,” said Ed Priz, president of Riverside, Illinois-based Advanced Insurance Management LLC, a consulting firm, in an interview on Aug. 11. “It reflects a shift in the kind of work Americans are doing. There are a lot less hazardous jobs.”

Workplace deaths among blacks declined 24 percent last year to 407 from 533 in 2008. There was a 16 percent decline for whites to 3,059 and a 17 percent drop for Hispanics to 668.

Homicides, Suicides

Homicides at work fell 1 percent to 521 deaths in 2009. That marked a decline of more than 50 percent from the high of 1,080 in 1994. Shootings made up about 80 percent of the homicides last year, which includes the 13 victims of the November massacre at Fort Hood Army post, according to the bureau’s statement.

Workplace suicides declined 9.9 percent to 237 last year from a record 263 in 2008.

In New York State, 184 workplace deaths occurred, compared with 213 a year earlier. Job-related fatalities in New York City fell to 63 from 90 in 2008.

Transportation accidents were the most frequent cause of worker deaths for the second straight year. The number of fatalities involving cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, and other vehicles was 1,682, compared with 2,130 in 2008. About 20 percent of the deaths were on highways.

Fatalities in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting fell to 551 from 672 a year earlier. Deaths in crop production dropped to 278 from 304.

Falling Sales

Liberty Mutual Group Inc. was the largest workers’ compensation insurer in the U.S. by 2009 policy sales, according to data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, followed by American International Group Inc., Travelers Cos. and Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.

U.S. workers’ compensation insurance, an industry tied closely to payrolls, posted sales that fell for the third straight year as the economic slump curbed employment, according to the NCCI. The jobless rate was 9.5 percent in July.

“Any decline in fatalities indicates that element of workers’ compensation costs is continuing to moderate,” Priz said. “The rapid decline in employment -- that’s got to be a factor.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Inyoung Hwang in New York at ihwang7@bloomberg.net.

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