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With Recent Worker Fatalities, Are Iowa Workplaces Safer Than In The Past?

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Each April, it’s a gathering to remember those who went to work and did not come back alive.

“You wonder if it’s good or bad from something that happened six or eight months ago and maybe they relive that,” said Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro last month before the April 25 Workers’ Memorial Day outside the Iowa Workforce Development building in Des Moines. “Even though we’re there to comfort them, there’s nothing we can do to bring that individual back. We want to honor them.”

Yet on the same day of this year’s ceremony in Des Moines, another work fatality occurred in Eastern Iowa. 19-year-old Colin Jackson, of Bellevue, was killed on April 25 after he became trapped in industrial equipment at Jackson Concrete Pumping in Dubuque County.

Another reminder that the statistics translate into real lives lost and families affected.

In March 2014, two workers died in Cedar Rapids at different locations. Brett Brown, a husband and father of three from Anamosa, was found electrocuted at Penford Products in Cedar Rapids on March 6.

Eight days later, Jacob Harper, a young pipefitter from the Quad Cities, was killed at Cedar Rapids Country Club. His cause of death was described as a “traumatic brain injury”.

Brown was a member of IBEW Local 405 in Cedar Rapids. IBEW Local 405 Business Manager Bill Hanes said safety is improving but, with each deadly case, they strive for that ultimate goal of zero deaths.

“Whenever there is an accident, we tear it apart,” said Hanes. “(We ask) how can we not make this happen again? It goes to the core. It always does.”

Has the workplace in Iowa become safer over the past 20 years? Hanes insists it has.

“Most of our customers require that our contractors have safety people on site,” said Hanes. “It’s not 20 years ago. There’s so much more emphasis on safety than there ever has been but you also have the human factor. That’s what we worry about.”

Both Mauro and Hanes say workplace safety has improved. Interpreting the numbers, however, requires a discerning eye. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides one set of comprehensive numbers that includes on-the-job deaths, deaths in overseas combat for military personnel originally from Iowa and deaths while commuting to or from work among other categories.

Mauro’s department tracks worker fatalities that have OSHA-investigated deaths on the job.

Deadly falls and fatal “contact with object” instances can shed light on whether the workplaces itself in Iowa are becoming safer. The findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics support this.

Looking in three year blocks:

Deadly Falls in Iowa:

2004-2006: 64 Total (21.3 average)

2007-2009: 30 (10)

2010-2012: 23 (8.3)

Deadly Contact With Object Incidents in Iowa:

2004-2006: 76 Total (25.3 average)

2007-2009: 56 (18.7)

2010-2012: 50 (16.7)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In an April 2 interview at his Des Moines office, Mauro looked through the deaths to that point in 2014, which included a worker struck by a conveyor belt, one that slipped and fell through ice, a fall from scaffolding and the March 6 electrocution in Cedar Rapids.

“We’ve had an unusual year this early on,” said Mauro. “Nine (deaths) in the first three months, worker-related fatalities. We average about 20 or 25 (worker fatalities) a year. I don’t have any explanation for it.”

Yet he cites the overall trend for improved safety on the job.

“The numbers have improved, dramatically, and I think the reason they have improved is more awareness among the workplace,” said Mauro. “Many of the businesses today have safety and health people that work on the job. They’re working at it every day.”

Eastern Iowa is in the midst of a construction boom as some cities rebuild from previous flooding. Mauro said construction remains a major risk for safety on the job, citing falls and contact with objects.

Hanes brings up one key point about technology.

“You have a second of distraction, in this age, a phone call to distract,” said Hanes. “Any building trade is dangerous because you have so much going on around you. You have the equipment around you, the hazardous vocations, a constant barrage grabbing your attention and the noise.”

The noise fades away each April for the Workers’ Memorial Day, a solemn ceremony of silence between the names of the dead being called. One that serves as a reminder to the people who did not suffer the sorrow of an unexpected, work-related death the previous year about the danger.

“We can sit here and talk about how much we’ve improved things and we have,” said Mauro. “Fatalities are down across the country a good amount but one is one too many.”

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