Workers' Compensation

Occupational Fatalities Involving Engines, Robots & Thingamabobs: A Study on Ways to Terminate Worker Death by Machines

By Karen C. Yotis, Esq. and Robin E. Kobayashi, J.D.

A farm worker is crushed to death after his tractor flips and pins him between the tractor and the wagon it was pulling.

A construction worker is struck and killed by a swinging crane when another worker removes a pin from the crane while they are breaking it down.

A worker drowns when he is trapped inside the cab of his excavator, after it loses traction and slides into a lake.

An assembly-line worker is killed instantly when a robot’s arm slams into his head.

A maintenance worker is killed when his clothes become entangled in the spikes of a pin-setting machine in a bowling alley.

An untrained temp worker starting his first day on the job is crushed by 2,000 pounds of cased liquor during a pallet incident at a bottling plant.

Death by machine is not merely the sci-fi flavored threat of an apocalyptic universe—it’s a stark reality that occurs in the workplace with alarming frequency. Based on the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, death by machine is the second leading cause of work-related fatality in the U.S. And this category of workplace deadliness is decreasing on an average of only 2.8 percent per year. The Minnesota Star Tribune reported on November 21, 2015 that the number of Minnesota farmers killed in work-related accidents has soared more than 30 percent during the past decade, with farm accidents accounting for fully one-quarter of all workplace deaths in the state.

In spite of technology improvements, OSHA, and other safety laws and regulations, death by machine still accounts for 13 percent of all work-related deaths, and the same demographic groups that have always posed the biggest safety challenges continue in still-elevated numbers in the same high-risk categories. To put statistics into perspective here, although occupational fatalities caused by machine have declined over the past two decades, approximately 770 workers continue to die each year because of machines.

These are just a few of the telling statistics to come out of a study “Trends of Occupational Fatalities Involving Machines, United States, 1992-2010,” published recently in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Basing its findings on data from the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, the study examines temporal patterns by worker demographic, by industry, and by killing machine. Machines are also separated into two groups: mobile and stationary. The study asks whether we have improved the safety of workers who operate in or around machines in the slightly more than 40 years since enactment of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the creation of OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and NIOSH, and concludes that much more can be accomplished to magnify the problems and increase the solutions and improvements that have already occurred.

A Strategic Approach  

This study is valuable for not only pointing out and describing the problems, but for delineating some specific strategies to prevent machine-related fatalities. The study states:

“Each type of machine can present its own dangers. Injury prevention strategies are often applied at work settlings. Accordingly, implementing prevention measures requires an understanding of the distribution of machine-related fatalities by work setting. Knowing the distribution of machine-related deaths across industry coupled with understanding the relative contributions of specific events leading to those deaths provides a foundation for effectively focusing and prioritizing injury prevention efforts.”

This machine-specific approach found that the most hazardous machines in U.S. industry continue to be:

1. Tractors

2. Forklifts

3. Excavation machines

4. Loaders

5. Cranes

The study’s industry-centric focus found that the highest rates of machine deaths occur in:

> Agriculture/forestry/fishing – where 94 percent of deaths occurred because of mobile machines, mainly tractors;

> Construction – where 78 percent of deaths occurred because of mobile machines such as excavators, road graving and surfacing machines, loaders and cranes; and

> Manufacturing – where 64 percent of deaths occurred because of stationary (as opposed to mobile) machinery.

Old Farmers and the Self-Employed: Beware!

The study also makes some provocative statements with respect to certain worker categories. Without doubt, old farmers driving old tractors need to bring themselves into the modern era of high-tech, satellite operated tilling of the fields, as this worker class continues to pose the same old problem of refusing to equip tractors with rollover protective structures (or insisting on the removal of the ROPS installed on new machines).

An article posted in Modern Farmer titled “Death on the Farm,” sheds some light on the reasons why tractors remain so deadly, even though NIOSH estimates that ROPS could prevent 95 percent of tractor deaths, especially when farmers bother to buckle up. The Modern Farmer piece mentions the “old red and green workhorses, chugging along many decades after they were built,” but the persistent problem with tractor deaths is not solely attributable to over-the-hill machines.  Because a driver can slip right past a roll over bar if not buckled in, seat belts are a critical component of the ROPS safety solution. But the real problem farmers have with ROPS is that they make it difficult to maneuver farm equipment into sheds and other outbuildings. 

Simply put, a ROPS can’t keep a farmer safe if it is never installed, or removed after installation. The study posits that the high machine death rates in agriculture/forestry/fishing will continue unchanged until old tractors (and ostensibly old farmers) are either removed from the workplace or refitted with ROPS.

The study also perceives the high machine death rate among self-employed workers as a continuing problem in the current U.S. workplace ecosystem. The self-employed operate at disproportionately higher numbers in the more high-risk industries of agriculture and construction, have less stable income which often results in their working longer hours, are subject to less-stringent safety and health practices, and fall outside of OSHA’s regulatory protections.

Ounces of Prevention and Pounds of Cure

The study is most useful for the safety recommendations that it makes for specific machine types, especially the prevention strategies for tractors, forklifts, earthmoving machinery, and cranes with their loads. The study outlines how each machine’s usage patterns place workers at risk and approaches to safety that involve both workers and the machines they operate.

One example involves the success experienced in Nordic countries in preventing tractor roll-over fatalities that is not similarly repeated in U.S. workplaces. The Nordics used engineering design bolstered by legislation imposed upon tractor manufacturers and retailers, rather than relying on the U.S. strategy of educational approaches and the adoption of voluntary standards. Irrespective of the clarity and simplicity inherent in the Nordic approach, the study opines that the U.S. is “still at least a decade from seeing fatality rate reductions  of the magnitude seen in Northern Europe,” when it comes to preventing tractor rolls. Also holding us back in this country are regulatory exclusions (which result in inconsistent ROPS use), tractor longevity (old farmers use old tractors that aren’t equipped with any new-fangled ROPS devices), ROPS retrofitting issues, and farmers who remove the ROPS from their tractors because they are a "pain in the ass."

The study’s recommended safety approaches to forklifts are also especially helpful. Noting the highly maneuverable, high-speed operational aspects of this mobile machine (especially when navigated around tight turns, over uneven surfaces, or with unbalanced loads), the study’s comments about the application of traffic engineering principles and technology such as load-sensing speed limiters to replace historical prevention methods that focused on occupant protection and operator training show significant promise.

Now That We Have Your Attention, Let’s Save Lives

Whether trends over the upcoming decade will reveal additional incremental decreases in machine-related work deaths is an open question. Predictions about the anticipated exponential increase of the temporary workforce suggest that some of the trickier challenges in reducing machine-related occupational fatalities will remain problematic. And the study itself affirms that the same worker groups are still at the highest risk of being fatally injured by the same dangerous machines. The study recommends further attention towards the disproportionate share of machine fatalities among the self-employed and intensified efforts to minimize fatalities brought about by tractors, forklifts, and other deadly mobile machines.

But the study and its safety ideas are a mere starting point. A brief glance at the website that features ProPublica’s Temp Land investigative series, which does a deep dive into some of these issues, is a great place to continue your efforts. In addition, a November 20, 2015 post on the NIOSH science blog discusses how humans and robots can work safely together. Employers, workers, regulators, and the rest of us need to dig deep to familiarize ourselves with these potential options for success. After all, there are lives at stake. 

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