The death of two construction workers late Wednesday night at the new Wacker Polysilicon plant in Bradley County is a bleak reminder that U.S. job sites can be perilous places. Officials reported that the men fell about 140 feet when a work platform apparently failed. Workers at that height obviously face significant dangers, but Americans in other occupations also risk life and limb in the workplace during every shift.
The fatality rate for most industries, to be fair, is improving — sometimes dramatically — but the nation's overall job safety record still remains much too high.
Preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that there were 4,609 fatal work injuries during 2011, a reduction from the 4,690 reported in 2010. The 2011 figure is likely to grow before final figures are published in the spring. That's proved to be the case in the past as the agency accumulates additional information on the previous year's workplace incidents.
There were 721 fatal work injuries in the private construction sector in 2011, according to the federal agency. That's a decline of 7 percent from the 774 fatalities reported in 2010 and marks the fifth straight year of a reduction in the category. Fatal construction injuries, in fact, have fallen about 42 percent since 2006. That is good news, but there is still dark side to the numbers tallied by the bureau.
Despite the reported decline in deaths, the private construction industry still ranked second in industrial work-related fatalities in 2011. Only the transportation and warehousing sector recorded more. The mining industry which in past years has produced high fatality counts, was somewhat safer last year. It recorded a 10 percent drop in deaths from 2010 to 2011. Indeed, coal mining deaths dropped from 43 in 2010 to 17 last year. There is, of course, still room for improvement in mining and other employment segments, including commercial agriculture and fishing which traditionally have high work-related death rates.
Accomplishing that task will be difficult. The federal government regulates many industries, but budget limitations, prompted in large part by ruinous tax cuts for the richest Americans and by the cost of two wars funded on the cheap, have reduced effective federal oversight.
So has the influence and pocketbooks of lobbyists in industries like mining that long have looked to the Republican party for succor. And the poisonous partisan political atmosphere in Washington makes it quite unlikely that sensible reform and improvement in current workplace regulations will take place anytime soon.
Careful investigation of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two men will no doubt help determine what occurred Wednesday night in Bradley County. That's no consolation to their families or to co-workers. The deaths are a potent and affecting reminder that men and women who want nothing more than to work hard for a fair wage to provide a good life for their families still must do so at sometimes considerable risk to themselves.