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On-the-Job Deaths on the Rise, Especially on the Road

By: Bridget Clerkin September 7, 2017
Road workers are at an increasing risk of on-the-job death, according to recently released labor statistics.

We already live in a world where driving is increasingly dangerous—and deadly—but that trend has now invaded the employment realm.

Roadway accidents were the leading cause of U.S. workplace deaths in 2015, the last year for which full data is available, according to a report released recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And with numbers from 2016 currently being crunched, many are worried the trend may have intensified—and there’s not much we can do about it.

Workplace fatalities have risen since 2011, making a 3% jump overall from 2011 to 2015, but roadway-related deaths at work have grown at 5 times the speed, increasing by 15% over the same time period, according to the BLS numbers.

In 2015 alone, 1,264 people died in a roadside incident while on the job—constituting nearly a quarter of all workplace deaths that year, which totaled 4,836. Most of those cases involved workers for private construction companies, a sector which accounted for 937 of the deaths, while commercial truck drivers suffered 745 fatal injuries.

Similar statistics for 2016 are still being calculated, but roadway deaths are rising in general, up to as many as 40,200 last year—a 6% jump from 2015, according to estimates by the National Safety Council.

Many fear the number of workplace incidents may mirror that national trend, but there’s little that can be done about it on a large scale.

The enforcement of workplace safety falls to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but the agency’s role becomes hazy when it comes to U.S. roads, which are regulated by the Department of Transportation. The law establishing OSHA gives oversight of certain industries, including commercial trucking and other road-heavy sectors, to federal agencies more focused on those areas.

The workplace watchdog organization has pushed employers to introduce more programs on safety regulation, training, and maintenance, but otherwise has no direct sway over the issue.

Regardless of who’s in charge, however, the problem remains difficult to deal with. A large part of the issue is completely out of the government’s hands—and at the fingertips of drivers.

Distracted driving is on the rise, with a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report estimating that 660,000 drivers use their cell phones every day while behind the wheel. And even a short peek at the device could be dangerous. Looking at a phone for just 5 seconds while traveling 55 miles per hour—far below many states’ speed limits—is the equivalent of driving blind down the length of a football field.

Unfortunately, the widespread normalization of this habit could be contributing to more deaths on the road. Our only hope may be meeting the high-tech problem with an even more modern solution: by introducing self-driving semi-trucks, we may kill off the shipping industry’s wages, but at least keep its drivers alive.

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