Beware those published lists of "most dangerous" jobs. From year to year the order may change. And from year to year the lists continue to mislead.
The rankings obscure within occupations huge variances and contingencies in fatality risk, known to sharp-eyed safety professionals, insurance underwriters and researchers.
Subpopulations within an occupation may have strikingly different risk levels due to different work characteristics. Safety measures capable of drastically reducing fatalities may be readily at hand but used ineffectively. Ethnicity may enter into intramural variances.
In at least one occupation, for example, the primary cause of death is not traumatic injury as suggested by many reports, but a personal condition typically not thought of as work-induced.
Thus, a simple ranking, usually topped by loggers, miners, fishermen, airplane pilots and crews, and steel workers, forms a less reliable picture than boxes of puzzles with missing pieces.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has been calculating fatality rates since 1992. It annually reports rates for more than 100 occupations, using the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's counts of fatal injuries and the government's periodic survey of the American workforce by occupation. The most recent summary report is for 2004. But the fatality rates in the table come from the latest in-depth report, issued for 2003, not the much skimpier summary 2004 report (in which the ranking is slightly different).
A fatality rate is the product of dividing the count of work deaths by a uniform measure of the number of workers in an occupation. In 2003, 109 loggers died; there were 79,000 loggers; thus there were 133 work deaths for every 100,000 loggers. The entire civilian workforce in America has a fatality rate of about 4.5 per 100,000. Loggers then had 29.5 times the risk of dying on the job in 2003 than did the average worker.
Because of the small number of reported work deaths--5,575 in 2003--a change from one year to the next in the absolute number of deaths in any occupation can greatly alter the rate. However, the reported ranking of risky occupations does not change by much from year to year.
But digging deeper suggests that these rankings may be unreliable once contingencies and subpopulations are accounted for.
Government researchers go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that both the number of work deaths and workforce estimates are reliable. Rarely, though, do they dig much deeper into the finer points of the statistics. If they did, their findings could have some important consequences for insurance carriers. An insurer or alternative risk program might, by puzzle-solving, devise programs that could be extraordinarily profitable.
Logging and fishing work can be extremely dangerous or moderately dangerous, depending upon adaptation of known safety solutions to the particular work environment. Loggers, for instance, usually die from being hit by falling limbs, caught between machinery or crushed while handling trimmed logs.
The industry has known for some time that investing in mechanization reduces the number of workers vulnerable to serious injury at the logging site. Mechanization can also slash the single greatest fatality risk, which is a chain-saw worker being struck by the very tree that he (rarely she) is cutting. Industry safety professionals know that intensive training can work, too.
Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Co., or MEMIC, may have one of the highest logging exposures of any nonspecialty workers' compensation insurer in the country, due to the size of the logging industry in Maine. Being a state fund, it can not avoid taking on this exposure.
Yet, since it opened its doors in 1993, the insurer has maintained about the same level of exposure. Since 1994, it has not incurred a single death from the primary fatality risk, that is, the chain-saw worker and his tree. MEMIC transformed the logging business into a more moderate risk. Dan Cote, who runs loss-prevention services for the insurer, asserts that every logging workforce in the country could enjoy the same result. MEMIC uses a simple, ingenious safety plan. A local area logging association must first endorse a program of ongoing safety certification for workers, which the insurer then delivers. The worker receives a week of training and after a month, spends a day in the field with an evaluator. If approved, he receives a certification. He must be recertified annually.
Cote's approach poses a challenge in some of the most dangerous jobs, such as owner-operated long-haul trucking, fishing and aircraft piloting: the isolated worker has to show a high degree of self-reliance in problem-solving but also must not bridle at intensive safety training.
Alaska's fishers in the early 1990s suffered fatality rates in the range of 200 per 100,000. A concerted effort reduced the rate significantly, in large measure by correcting poor preparation of the small coastal boater, commercial as well as pleasure, for the main event: rescue or self-rescue after a man overboard. The number of boat sinkings remained about the same, but the survival of people after falling in the water improved.
Thus, solving the fatality puzzle within a high-risk occupation may mean finding the root causes behind wildly different patterns of death and injury, and through vision and persistence getting employers and workers to change their ways.
Citing his work with the international forest products company Weyerhauser Co. and other corporations in North America and Europe, Wolfgang Zimmerman argues that it is possible to predict if and when the losses in high-risk exposures will decline.
He is a Canadian who went from a career-ending logging accident--he walks with the aid of two canes--to founding a nonprofit international program on disability management. Zimmerman says that radical reduction of losses in an industry like forestry happens if the involved parties--workers, employers, insurers--explicitly agree in advance to ambitious goals. If one party is not up to the challenge, then that flagging party's expectation sets a limit on improvement.
Zimmerman makes a point of learning the total cost of fatalities and injuries. High fatality rates may persist because their cost is lost in a haze of part-time employment and uncoordinated workers' compensation and long-term disability plans, personal-injury suits, work stoppages and subrogation. Consolidating the cost data may reveal that permanent injuries (such as his) may cost far more than deaths. His is a call for better accounting: greater transparency down to the individual accident.
High fatality rates, such as those among air-transport and construction workers, may not be so susceptible to change through radical applications of safety standards.
Aircraft deaths are high partly because small planes often crash with more than one worker in the plane. Almost all multiple fatality accidents involve commercial aircraft. (Deaths of passengers not employed in air transport are not included in the pilot and crew fatality rates.)
Crop dusting appears to be by far the most dangerous of commercial aircraft work. Federal researchers calculate that a pilot who expects to devote an entire career to full-time crop dusting has a 30 percent chance of dying on the job.
ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT FACTOR
Risk of death among construction laborers varies greatly by ethnic background and, more deeply, the immigration status of the worker. There are today about 7.5 million illegal immigrant workers in the United States.
Most are Hispanic. Many of them work in high-risk residential construction jobs. By a nice piece of detective work using employment data, researchers estimate in early 2006 that more than a quarter of roofers and construction laborers in America are illegal immigrants.
Juan, an illegal immigrant roofer, is more likely to be a rurally reared Mexican, young (hence less experienced), with poor English language skills, and working for a subcontractor who skimps on safety measures and cheats on payroll obligations and the workers' compensation insurer. A few years ago federal researchers determined that Hispanic construction workers had sharply higher fatality rates relative to their age, education and tenured peers who were non-Hispanic.
In the New York City metropolis, an illegal immigrant construction crew is more likely to look like the United Nations. A few years ago a construction industry task force in New York City referred to "two cities" of safety culture. Anyone can visit these two cities in the space of an hour.
Go visit some large commercial construction sites in Manhattan, which are tightly controlled and have full-time site safety managers. Then drive past the smaller residential construction underway in the boroughs, where using protection equipment is more of a personal virtue and New York City's scaffolding rules are routinely violated. A safety professional once discovered scaffolding constructed out of bamboo.
Solving the fatality puzzle in construction requires a multipronged public campaign, a challenge for which state regulators so far have not been fully prepared. These efforts can rebound to the detriment of insurers. Massachusetts began recently to make construction contactors financially accountable for workers' compensation coverage failures of their subcontractors.
The net effect, according to some prime contractors, has been to greatly increase their, and their insurers', exposure to high claims rates.
Probably no occupation has been subjected to as relentless an examination of fatality risks as firefighting.
But it has paid off, through the discovery of a silent killer lurking beneath the formal cause of death figures.
More firefighters die at the scene from heart attack than from falling structures, suffocation or burns. During the drive to or from a fire, as many firefighters die from heart attack as die from trauma from vehicular accident.
These vignettes of the grim reaper at work point to a few lessons for insurers and alternative risk managers on how to prevail against great risks:
* First, approach fatality risk and permanent injury risk together.
* Second, search for solutions in the job itself, in the job holder and in the environment. Safety training by itself may not matter as much as you think.
* Third, never agree to underwrite without a customized safety improvement plan.
* Fourth, have trust in safety improvements, but verify.
* Finally, know when to fold.
PETER ROUSMANIERE,a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is the workers' comp columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
May 1, 2006
Copyright 2006© LRP Publications