WASHINGTON – Maryland workplace fatalities fell slightly last year to 92 deaths, down from 102 the year before, according to numbers released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The decrease helped Maryland slip from the 20th-highest number of workplace fatalities in 2002 to 24th-highest in 2003, as the number of on-the-job deaths nationally grew from 5,534 to 5,559.
Maryland’s drop also brought the state closer to its 10-year average of 82.3 fatalities per year. But while the state’s numbers have remained fairly stable, labor unions said much more needs to be done to improve workplace safety.
Fred Mason, president of the Maryland-DC chapter of the AFL-CIO, said that on both the state and federal levels, not enough funding is being provided to train inspectors and to adequately examine places of work for safety hazards.
Another big problem is employers who care more about their bottom line than their workers, he said.
“They’re interested in getting the job done, and oftentimes the health and safety of workers are jeopardized,” Mason said.
Rob McGarrah, coordinator for workers’ compensation at the national AFL-CIO, said the number of fatalities in Maryland ought to be decreasing at a faster rate because of the changing nature of the state’s workplaces.
“We have a different economy now than we had from 10 years ago,” McGarrah said. “We’ve become a service-based economy. We don’t have as many industrial jobs.”
But Maryland Commissioner of Labor and Industry Rob Lawson disagreed, saying there has been huge growth in the state’s construction industry.
Construction accounted for highest number of workplace fatalities in 2003 — 28 deaths, or 30.4 percent — followed by the transportation and warehousing industry, with 16 cases, or 17.4 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Lawson said that, considering the boom in development, the relatively slight increase in construction-related deaths from 25 in 2002 to 28 in 2003 shows that construction companies are actually working to improve worker safety. The problem does not lie with employers, but with their employees, he said.
“Most of the problems for employers is that they have training programs, they educate their employees, and the employees find ways to cut corners on their own,” Lawson said. “The employer has a responsibility to provide the safe workplace, but the worker has the responsibility to follow the rules and wear safety equipment.”
Lawson said the state has targeted much of its workplace safety effort on the construction industry, and that effort is paying off. Participating companies “have all achieved accident reduction numbers,” he said.
Kristin Hogle, spokeswoman for Home Builders Association of Maryland, also said that companies were working hard to prevent workplace injuries and deaths.
“We encourage best practices on job sites,” she said. “Each contractor is going to have their own set of regulations as well.”
But Lawson conceded that, despite the improvement he sees, much more can be done to improve workplace safety in the future.
“We realize that one case is too many,” he said.
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