Minnesota had 13 construction deaths last year, but officials say the state still compares favorably with the rest of the country.
Construction-related deaths have risen in Minnesota in recent years, despite industry efforts to create safer work sites. But industry observers said the numbers don't tell the whole story and note that Minnesota compares favorably with other states.
According to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, construction fatalities in Minnesota have increased each year since 1999. The Minnesota office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated 13 such fatalities in 2001, up from eight in 2000 and six in 1999. Fourteen deaths were investigated in 1998 and six in 1997.
Three deaths have been reported in the state so far this year, with the busiest part of the construction season just beginning to get under way.
Last year, construction accounted for 43 percent of all work-place deaths in Minnesota, up from 42 percent in 2000, 38 percent in 1999, and 24 percent in 1997. Fifty-two percent of Minnesota's work-place deaths were construction-related in 1998.
Local safety experts said one explanation for the recent increase might be the growth of construction activity in Minnesota.
Brian Zaidman, a senior research analyst with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said 13 is within Minnesota's historical range for construction deaths.
"It varies with the length of the construction season," he said. "Also, there are more people in construction now than a few years ago. ... If you look at a five-year trend, you may want to ask, 'Why was it so low — only six — in some other year?'"
Indeed, other sources suggest that 2001 may have been a better-than-average year for safety. The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics in cooperation with state and federal agencies, shows an annual average of 14.4 fatal injuries in Minnesota from 1996 to 2000.
Zaidman said the federal numbers are historically higher than the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry count because they include independent contractors and workers not covered by workers' compensation.
In the federal compilation, Minnesota compares favorably with similar-sized states when it comes to fatalities. For example, statistics show that Tennessee had twice as many construction-related deaths as Minnesota in 2000. Colorado (22), Mississippi (19), Missouri (23), South Carolina (27) and Washington (17) also had more deaths.
Looking at all industries, Wisconsin had 107 work-place fatalities (12 in construction) in 2000, compared with 68 in Minnesota. Iowa had 71 deaths (13 in construction) with fewer workers than Minnesota.
Arnold Kraft, a certified safety professional and safety consultant with Burnsville-based ARK Management Associates, attributed increased construction fatalities in Minnesota to more building projects in 2000 and 2001. Percentage-wise, he said, there weren't many more deaths in the last two years, and injuries have actually gone down.
"But we still have too many deaths," he said. "Thirteen deaths are way too many. We should have zero."
Arnold said fatalities often stem from a lack of experience and training, and 85 percent of all accidents involved workers with six months or less experience. And in 2000 and 2001, contractors were hiring "a heck of a lot of people who had very little experience" as they struggled with a worker shortage and tried to keep up with demand, Arnold noted.
"If you go back and look at where the deaths occurred in 2000 and 2001, it's very indicative that people who didn't have the experience or the proper training were the ones being killed," Arnold said.
Stacy Randall, a safety coordinator for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Minnesota, said many construction workers don't speak English, and she speculated that communication barriers could contribute to the higher accident numbers.
Whatever the causes, Randall said ABC is working to increase safety awareness. Among its programs is the Safety Training and Evaluation Process, which helps companies to develop and analyze their safety and loss prevention activities.
"ABC wants to promote safety from the top," Randall said. "Once it comes from the management, it's going to go down the ranks. I think that's very important."
On June 12, Minnesota ABC will offer a safety workshop featuring presentations by Gary Loge, Mid-States Mechanical Service's corporate safety director, and Craig Lueck, corporate safety director for T.E. Ibberson. Both companies have received multiple safety awards across the nation.
Another company that has been honored for safety is Rogers-based Veit Companies.
Moe Mahon, corporate safety director for Veit Companies, said successful safety programs require a commitment from employees, foremen and supervisors.
"They're the ones that do the work," he said. "They're the ones that will make or break you when it comes to safety."
At Veit, Mahon oversees a program that features safety orientation for each new employee, monthly 30-minute safety sessions at every job site and an incentive plan to reward employees who work safely, among other initiatives.
The training appears to be working. According to Mahon, Veit's incident rate for work-place accidents is about half the national average for the industry.
Besides the obvious human cost, work-place injuries affect a company's bottom line. Workers' compensation costs, training expenses, loss of productivity and increased insurance rates are just a few examples, Mahon said.
"Every industry is getting hit with a potential of 30 percent raises on their insurance," Mahon said.
"And when you're dishing out that kind of money, you put a heavier emphasis on your safety programs being successful."
Arnold said owners are getting into the act, too. A number of big companies won't hire contractors who don't have good safety records.
Meanwhile, the industry is striving to make sure workers "recognize the hazards out there and they have the proper training to be able to do something about it," Arnold added. "So we eliminate all these deaths. So we don't have any."