Worked To Death

What data tells us about how dangerous our jobs are.

image source

In most cases, disaggregated, individual-level data is unremarkable. It’s only when hundreds, if not thousands, of data points are assembled, grouped, and sliced before a trend emerges, and thus a story. But when it comes to the data of death, it’s the parts that convey more than the sum. Each year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration publishes a dataset in which each entry is its own story. It’s an annual list of workplace fatalities in the United States and it includes a description of what happened. A news ticker on OSHA’s homepage streams a sample:

The descriptions tend to be one or two declarative sentences, written without flair or much punctuation. If it reads like Cormac McCarthy, it’s because all employers under OSHA jurisdiction have only eight hours after a fatal workplace incident occurs to file a summary. That hurriedness might explain the many spelling errors, which make the summaries all the more unsettling:

“11/04/2014 OH: Worked sruck and killed by truck.”

The descriptions, along with the date of the incident and the name of the employer, have been published on OSHA’s website for anyone to look at since 2009. This interactive map plots every reported workplace fatality.

Click the map to view interactive, then hover over a point to see details, like the incident description.

Patterns emerge: There are high rates of elevator-related deaths in New York. Drowning fatalities are common along the coasts. Out west, there is a dearth of electrocutions. OSHA catalogs how the person died (“drowned”) and on the type of job (“construction”), and provides the employer’s name (“Walmart”). Even innocuous queries like “bowling” or “coconut” return anonymous tragedies.

While the data does not categorize the deaths in detail, text mining can give an approximation. The chart below shows the ten verbs that occur most frequently in the descriptions between 2009–2016.

*Excludes verbs that don’t explain how the worker died (i.e. “died”, “killed”, “operating”, “hospitalized”, etc…)
“Fatal Four” mapped

Although it varies by industry, death by falling is the most common. In cases where the height of the fall was known, more than two-thirds occurred at a height of less than twenty feet in 2014. Looking only at the construction industry, more than half of all workplace deaths resulted from falling, electrocution, or being struck by or caught in something. OSHA classifies these as the “Fatal Four” and notes that preventing these accidents would save at least five hundred lives a year.

Some of the descriptions use industry-specific words, like “unscrambler” and “auger,” and are difficult to picture. So fifteen years ago, OSHA published a report with illustrations of common workplace accidents. The illustrations, like the descriptions, are absent of color.

Accident Type: Asphyxiation

The report was called “Fatal Facts” and was supposed to help employers safety-proof their workplace. Although these reports are no longer issued, previous versions have been archived (h/t to reddit user whospitonmypancakes).

No matter how grim, there are real benefits to making this data available for anyone to see. OSHA stands by the idea that giving job seekers and customers the chance to see how dangerous a workplace is can nudge employers to improve workplace safety — or lose out on business. This low-cost, name-and-shame technique can help make up for the fact that OSHA only employs 2,200 inspectors to enforce safety at more eight million workplaces across the country. In 2017, OSHA will require employers to electronically submit workplace injuries and illnesses (which they already record) so that they too can be published online. It’s a win-win if safety improves without OSHA issuing fines or additional penalties.

Funeral home directors, OSHA fatality description writers, and “Fatal Facts” illustrators all have something in common: For them, death isn’t personal. It’s just business. If you think you’re not vulnerable to dying at work, you can follow this Twitter bot to be reminded that death comes for us all.