When the Road is Your Workplace

The scene was an icy morning in western Maryland, along the Garrett County and Allegany County lines.  Mr. Dwight Samuel Colmer, 41, a truck driver with Western Maryland Lumber Company was hauling a load of coal just before 11:00 AM when his truck began to slide.  The State of Maryland’s “Motor Vehicle Accident Report” says:

“…hit guard rail, and overturned to the passenger side.  Driver was ejected and crushed under the dump truck and died from the injuries.”

The report indicates the incident occurred on a public road called Bartlett Street.  Is this a work-related fatality? 

Well, it depends on which agency you ask.

Yes, would be the answer from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which publishes an annual census of fatal occupational injuries (CFOI).  (Note: injuries, but not illnesses.)   BLS’s process includes gathering the data, verifying it using multiple sources, and tabulating the yearly count of deaths on-the-job.  Their sources include State agencies, workers’ compensation records and newspaper accounts; the death count in 2006 was 5,703.  By far, the single greatest event-cause was transportation-related incidents, representing more than 40 percent (2,413 deaths), and more than half of these are classified as “highway incidents.”  Transportation-related on-the-job fatalities have been a consistent feature in the BLS Census over the last decade.

So, if transportation incidents are the single biggest cause of work-related FATAL injuries, does OSHA consider them work-related?  No, not really. 

Here’s why I say that:

OSHA’s reporting regulations for fatalities (29 CFR 1904.39) does not require employers to report to OSHA a worker’s death in a motor vehicle accident.  Specifically, the regulation says:

“If the motor vehicle accident occurs on a public street or highway, and does not occur in a construction work zone, you do not have to report the incident to OSHA.”

So, if they aren’t reported to federal OSHA or the 21 comparable State-based OSH programs, they are just written off “traffic accidents.”   The local police, or sheriff or highway patrol will usually fill out an accident report, but that’s it—there’s no follow-up with the employer to determine if the death could have been prevented.  There’s nobody asking whether the company had an adequate vehicle maintenance program (e.g., brakes, tires), and safe work policies and driver safety training.

When I look at the BLS data for 2006, I see 1,329 incidents in which a worker died in a highway crash.  That’s nearly 25 percent of all fatal work-related injuries.  A 2004 report in the MMWR noted:

“despite overall declines in the number and rate of occupational fatalities from all causes, annual numbers of work-related roadway deaths increased during the decade, and rates showed little change.”

I suppose the death last month of truck driver Dwight Samuel Colmer, 41, troubles me because of my experience with the family of Chad Cook.  Mr. Chad Cook, 25, died in late November 2005 when the coal truck he was driving ran off the road and overturned.  Because it was considered a “highway accident,” no worker safety agency investigated it.  That is, until Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette determined that the fatality actually occurred on a coal mine operator’s property; he wrote about MSHA’s egregious error in April 2007.  

If the truck crash had not been dismissed as just a “highway accident,” perhaps Chad Cook’s family would have learned whether his death could have been prevented.  What about the families of the 1,329 other work-related fatal highway incidents?  I bet some of them have questions about whether their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented.  But, OSHA doesn’t even want to know about them. 

Again…

“If the motor vehicle accident occurs on a public street or highway, and does not occur in a construction work zone, you do not have to report the incident to OSHA.”

Of course, some people will scoff at the idea of OSHA investigating “traffic accidents.”  Pleeeze, they’ll say, an employer isn’t responsible for what happens to an employee after they leave the workplace.  But, what about when the road is your workplace.  Don’t these workers have a right to safe working conditions?

I’m not suggesting that every worker fatality involving a motor vehicle on a public road could have been prevented by the employer.  I am disturbed, however, that these deaths seem to be dismissed as irrelevant by our worker safety agencies.  The way I see it, what if 10 percent of these fatalities could have been prevented by some reasonable action on the employers’ part?  That could be 133 lives saved per year.  Wouldn’t that be worthwhile?  

Public health is about prevention.  In order to prevent these transportation-related worker fatalities we need information obtained through meaningful investigations.  Truck drivers, like Chad Cook and Dwight Samuel Colmer, and other workers who die in their workplace—in a vehicle on the road—deserve it.    

Comments

  1. #1 Frank Mirer
    March 9, 2008

    Over the road incidents should be addressed by DOT and the Cops, not by OSHA, MSHA or NIOSH. This is simply a matter of resources and expertise, as well as regulatory authority and responsibility.

    Worker health and safety advocates may need to devote some more effort to over-the-road issues. Introducing the Heirarchy of Controls is generally difficult in the injury control arena, and especially in this corner of the injury arena. But the current leadership of OSHA, and many management safety organizations, would be very happy to divert attention from ergonomics, energy lockout and chemical exposure control to launch blame-the-victim seat belt and drug testing campaigns.

    Reading abstracts from Accident Analysis and Prevention

    http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/336/description#description

    will help inform this discussion.

  2. #2 Celeste Monforton
    March 10, 2008

    I’d be all for the DOT or State police investigating thoroughly these fatalities, but right now, nobody does. That’s the problem.

  3. #3 Tasha
    March 10, 2008

    Frank, I disagree. While I believe that these accidents should be investigated by DOT or the state police (BTW, Celeste, at least in my state, they are investigated by the state police if a fatality occurs), I believe that they should also be investigated by OSHA.

    It’s a matter of perspective. The state police is going to be looking for immediate causes of the accident – excessive speed, weather conditions, mechanical failure – but that will be the extent of it. The best recommendation that you could pull from a police report would be “don’t speed” or “change your tires more often.”

    That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. This is where OSHA comes in. Perhaps the reason the driver was speeding was because he was expected to make too many deliveries in too little time. Or perhaps the reason the tires failed is because the company hasn’t implemented a proper maintenance program. Telling a driver not to speed will probably not do much to deter the next fatality (any driver knows that they shouldn’t speed). Helping a company re-arrange their delivery schedule so that they can do so in a timely, yet realistic fashion (or write and enforce rules that protect workers accordingly), may actually make a difference.

    As for resources, I think that the leading cause of work-related death for the past umpteen years is a worthwhile use of resources.

  4. #4 Celeste Monforton
    March 10, 2008

    Yes indeed. Here’s an example of the typical police report “investigations” that I’ve seen for work-related motor vehicle fatalities.

    http://www.defendingscience.org/upload/Scan001_2.pdf

    When family members or others want to know more about “why” the fatality happened, this is pretty much the extent of the information–the police accident report. They also learn that pretty much as soon as the victim’s body is removed, and the police finish writing up this “report” the vehicle is turned right back over to the employer. (See on this form the line “vehicle removed by”) As Tasha suggests, the cursory treatment of these worker deaths prevents us from understanding the root of the problem, such as inadequate vehicle maintenance, seat belts that don’t work properly (so they aren’t worn), etc., etc.

  5. #5 Michael Wood
    March 13, 2008

    Let’s be clear here. These deaths are required to be reported and are evaluated for investigation in at least two states (Washington and, since January of 2007, Oregon). One reason is that many deaths fall outside DOT jurisdiction and law enforcement, which will focus on what caused the accident, will not focus on why those conditions existed. Tasha’s explanation of this is right on point.

    Another reason is that, if they aren’t reported, they tend to drop off of our collective radar screen. And, year in and year out, they are the single biggest cause of death in the workplace. We’re not talking about end-of-day commutes here — we are talking about work-related deaths that, for example, are paid without objection by the workers comp carrier.

    Just by beginning to talk about the issue in our activities, and by asking employers to have it on their radar screen, we are told that we’ve gotten employers and their workers to think about the issue and how the risks can be minimized. That’s something I’m proud of — and I agree that these should be on our collective OSH screen across the country.

    And, for the record, I share the concerns about a “blame the worker” perspective. But that doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on workplace conditions and expectations that may lead workers to drive less safely than they can and should.

    Michael Wood, CSP, Administrator, Oregon OSHA
    Department of Consumer and Business Services

  6. #6 Celeste Monforton
    March 13, 2008

    Michael,
    Thanks for setting me straight about the reporting requirements in Oregon and Washington for over-the-road workplace fatalities. I’m genuinely heartened to now know these requirements exist in those States. (And if anyone knows of others, please chime in.)

    I also agree that we should be aware of “blame-the-worker” perspectives and “solutions” which come out of that attitude, but should not avoid certain workplace conditions (e.g., worker-involved traffic fatalities) because that perspectives might emerge.

  7. #7 Frank Mirer
    March 13, 2008

    I’m less than convinced by what’s been said above.

    I’ll repeat. OSHA should not be pressured to divert resources from hazards only OSHA can address, just because the Cops and DOT are not doing their jobs. Ditto the NSC.

    Management will be very happy to tell you that motor vehicle (and violence) are more frequent causes of occupational fatalities than the historical objects of OSHA enforcement. For years I’ve heard the car companies tell me that it’s safer to work in one of their plants than to drive one of their cars (they didn’t quite say it that way.)

    Anyway, the fatality numbers are skewed because illnesses from chemical exposure are not counted, but have been estimated as 90% of known mortality, without counting any workplace contribution to cardiovascular mortality.

  8. #8 Fran Taylor
    March 14, 2008

    Quote:

    For years I’ve heard the car companies tell me that it’s safer to work in one of their plants than to drive one of their cars

    The fact that you would use such an unsubstantiated and silly statement as part of your argument really serves to reinforce the opposing argument.

    You seem to be focused on the statistics and not on the actual premise of getting to the bottom of why these accidents happen.

  9. #9 Michael Wood
    March 18, 2008

    The recognition that OSHA is better suited to approach the work-related component of this issue is not a suggestion that law enforcement isn’t doing their job. It’s a recognition that their job is different. If the driver was moving too fast for conditions or failed to yield, they will so note. But they will not ask why. For that reason, they will not determine that job expectations cannot be met without cutting corners while driving (remember the issue with the “30 minutes or it’s free” guarantee provided several years ago by a national pizza chain — that would be the root cause, even if the proximate cause was “driver error”). How widespread are such problems? We don’t know. Because we haven’t been asking.

    I agree with Frank Mirer that chemical hazards in the workplace are underestimated and insufficiently addressed. But I don’t think one partial blind spot should be used to justify another.

    Michael Wood