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Dying on the job: 164 workers killed in Ohio

By Thomas Gnau • Apr 2, 2018 at 1:00 PM

The March 22 death of a forklift operator at Fuyao Glass America Inc.’s Moraine plant comes amid concerns that high-pressure work environments across the country are causing more injuries on the job.

The most recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show workplace deaths in 2016 topped 5,000 for the first time since 2008. Among them were 164 workers who were killed in Ohio.

It also marked the third-straight increase in fatal injuries over the previous year.

Some argue an improved economy is putting more pressure on employees, saying fatigue becomes a factor as more work comes in.

“There may be some systematic changes that are happening with regards to stress and fatigue, that are leading more to tense work environments, that are contributing more to higher pressure,” said Lora Cavuoto, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Buffalo. “That can contribute to workplace violence or transportation accidents.”

Others argue that employer decisions make the workplace more dangerous.

When times are tough, “the first people to be laid off may be the safety people,” said Pam Seminario. director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO union.

As the economy improves, she said, the new workers brought in tend to be younger and less experienced.

“More younger people, that is definitely a factor,” Seminario said. “There’s no question about that.”

About 40 percent of fatal workplace accidents involve some form of transportation, according to the government. Violence and injuries account for another 23 percent of deaths, the second most common cause. Exposure to harmful chemicals rose 22 percent in 2016 while fires and explosions declined 27 percent.

OHIO DEATHS

Ohio’s fatal injuries dropped in 2016 after rising steadily between 2013 to 2015. Although the 2017 numbers aren’t out yet, several local deaths were recorded, and at a wide variety of workplaces.

OSHA and Department of Labor records show several fatal incidents locally in 2017:

• In August 2017, Douglas Mescher, 30, of Lebanon, was killed when the load he was under slid off the forks of a forklift and crushed him. In that incident, OSHA opened an inspection with Walther Engineering in Franklin and SK Rigging Co. Inc., which was hired by Walther’s to move a machine.

• In July 2017, a worker died after a fall from a ladder at a Macy’s credit and customer services center in Mason.

• In Dayton, in May 2017, a worker died after falling from a load being lifted into a trailer at YRC Freight.

• In April 2017, a Brown’s Tree Service & Landscaping worker in Hamilton was killed after being struck by a front-end loader.

• In December 2017, a worker was killed in a trench collapse in Salem Twp., Warren County, and in June 2016, another man was killed in a Washington Twp. trench accident.

Some experts say accidents could be eliminated if safety concerns were put first in a company’s planning.

“All companies experiencing growth are going to face new challenges, new hazards, and the need to train new employees,” said John Morris, the Springboro-based president of Mid-America OSHA Education Center, which trains businesses on OSHA standards. “An investment in safety is critical.”

DEATH AT FUYAO

Fuyao forklift operator Ricky Patterson, 57, of Dayton died early March 22 after he was trapped between his forklift and a pallet holding more than 2,000 pounds of glass, according to Moraine police.

Video at the West Stroop Road plant captured the moment, police said.

“The video shows the pallet of glass shifted forward,” according to Moraine police records. “Patterson then walks in between the forklift and the glass, grabs a strip cutter, and cuts the west side strap, causing the glass to crush him in the forklift.”

“Multiple Fuyao employees assisted with containing the pallet of glass and extracting Patterson from the forklift,” according to the report.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the events that led to Patterson’s death and have not returned calls seeking comment since the fatal accident.

OSHA officials said they would not comment on the case until the investigation is complete. Fuyao officials released a statement following the accident, calling Patterson a “valued colleague and friend,” vowing to work with federal and state officials while calling company safety “the top priority.”

Fuyao, Moraine’s largest employer with about 2,000 workers, was fined $100,000 by OSHA last year for “serious” safety violations. Employees have repeatedly expressed concern about workplace safety.

The United Auto Workers soundly lost a bid to organize the Fuyao plant last year. One concern the union and its local allies consistently expressed during a campaign to persuade workers to form a new bargaining unit was plant safety,

“We stand with the workers at Fuyao, who for some time now have been concerned about health and safety issues at the Moraine plant,” said Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the UAW, said in an email.

A spokesman for Fuyao declined to comment for this story, citing the OSHA investigation.

DISTURBING NUMBERS

The number of fatal accidents in the nation are “quite disturbing,” Seminario said. The rate of workplace deaths went up from 3.4 to 3.6 fatal incidents per 100,000 workers in 2016, she said.

Seminario said the most recent numbers are from the last year of Barack Obama’s administration. But she said safety enforcement agencies have gradually been “starved” of needed funds and staffing since 2001.

Seminario argues that OSHA needs a $100 million boost in its budget, just to keep pace with inflation. She’s concerned about staffing levels, too.

According to figures she said OSHA provided the AFL-CIO, in fiscal year 2001 OSHA had 1,001 compliance employees, both inspectors and supervisory personnel.

Today, that number is lower. OSHA has 974 compliance staff. Of those, just 764 people are inspectors, she said.

The data is clear, Seminario argues: Where government oversight exists, workplaces tend to be safer.

Death rates are rising in sectors where OSHA doesn’t have much presence, she said — sectors like transportation, utilities and hospitality.

With OSHA or agencies like it, oversight and standards address hazards. And standards force changes in workplace practices, which creates safer environments, she said.

“You put in place a system of safety and health,” Seminario said. “That exists more fully in sectors where the standards apply and where there’s more oversight.”

Stronger economy

When companies are busier in a stronger economy, accidents can happen, experts say. Workers can become tired and distracted.

Seminario pushed back against the idea that a stronger economy is somehow more dangerous. A stronger economy also means employers have “more resources to deal with the problems,” she said.

About 40 percent of fatal workplace accidents involve some form of transportation, according to the government. Violence and injuries account for another 23 percent of deaths, the second most common cause. Exposure to harmful chemicals rose 22 percent in 2016 while fires and explosions declined 27 percent.

A stronger economy means more trucks on the road and busier distribution hubs. Factories and suppliers are busier, Cavuoto said. More demand is felt across industry.

In Ohio in 2016, private transportation and warehousing saw the highest number of on-the-job fatalities with 32, down by 4 from 2015.

“If you have a lot of people working overtime, they may not be able to make … good decisions as they get into longer hours — which could lead to shortcuts and mistakes being made,” Cavuoto said.

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©2018 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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