U.S. Workplaces Have Never Been Safer but Suicides Increased During the 2008-2009 Recession

As we approach the Labor Day weekend it is interesting to examine the latest data on workplace violence and workplace safety.  The Department of Labor just released preliminary figures for fatal work injuries in 2012.  The good news is that workplaces in the U.S. have never been safer.  Workplace fatalities are down and workplace violence is lower than it has been in decades.  The most distressing pattern in recent data has been the increase in suicides in the workplace, apparently a result of the 2008-2009 recession.

The workplace fatal injury data for 2012 released last week will be revised upward when the final fatality rates are recorded.  If the upward revisions are consistent with recent years, the rate of fatal work injuries will be about 3.3 per 100,000 full-time equivalent employees, the lowest rate since the BLS began reporting these figures in 1992.  As the following chart shows, the workplace fatality rate is 36.5% lower than it was two decades ago.

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Transportation accidents continue to be the most common cause of a workplace fatality and account for 41% of all fatalities on the job.  Workplace violence is the second most common cause of fatalities and account for an additional 17.5% of deaths.  Within the workplace violence category, there are more than twice as many homicides as suicides.

Workplace deaths from homicides and transportation accidents have been trending down over the past 20 years.  Transportation accidents have been declining by about 1.4% per year and homicides at work have been declining by about 4.3% per year.  As the following charts indicate, over the past decade the drop in both homicides and motor vehicle accidents has been more pronounced in the workplace than in the general population.  (I have normalized the fatality rates per adult to be 100 in 1992 for all categories of causes of death.)

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Suicides in the workplace declined slightly from 1992 to 2002 following the pattern in the general population as the following chart shows.  More recently suicides in the workplace declined more sharply 2002 to 2007 but then increased rapidly during the 2008-2009 recession.

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The following chart shows the relative increase in the number of suicides at work during the recession and the declining trend  in the number of transportation accidents and homicides in the workplace over the past two decades.  (I normalize the number of workplace fatalities to be 100 for each category in 1992.)

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A simple statistical analysis suggests that there were about 153 more suicides in workplaces as the economy struggled from 2008 to 2010.  At the same time the drop in economic activity meant fewer fatal transportation accidents.  My rough calculation suggests that there were 749 fewer deaths from traffic and transportation accidents from 2008 to 2010 than there would have been if the economy had continued to grow.  In general the recession reduced fatal workplace accidents.

Despite the good news that workplaces in the U.S. are safer than ever, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez is not satisfied.  He issued a statement last week that “no worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”  I am sure that Secretary Perez also would like no U.S. resident to lose their life in any accident, whether they are being paid for their time or not, but that is an unrealistic goal.  Mr. Perez also finds the increase in fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry unacceptable.  Clearly, many of the men and women who work in oil and gas extraction are risking their lives every day they go to work, but the 138 deaths in this industry last year need to be put into perspective.  Over the past two years fatalities in oil and gas extraction averaged 125 per year, or 22% higher than in the previous 8 years.   This increase is smaller than the 27% increase in employment in the industry over the same period.

As more people find jobs and shift from part-time work to full-time work, we can expect workplace fatalities to increase in many industries and sectors.  This does not mean that workplaces are becoming less safe – in fact workplaces are safer than ever.  In 2012 there were about 36.5% fewer workplace fatalities per full-time equivalent employee than just 20 years ago.  The downside is that some of the increase in safety has been achieved by outsourcing riskier jobs and replacing workers with machines.  As is the case in many economic issues labor faces a tradeoff between workplace safety and employment security.  If organized labor demands exceedingly high levels of safety in U.S. workplaces the U.S. will be more likely to lose jobs to foreign competitors with more lax safety standards and will be more likely to replace workers with machines and robots.

Government Employees Now Have Higher Homicide Rates than Private Sector Workers

The victims of the tragic and horrific mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut included six school employees who died trying to save the lives of their students.  Sadly, this horrible crime underscores the fact that the homicide rate for government employees has risen in the past few years.  Government employees now face a higher risk of being murdered on the job than private sector workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains detailed records on workplace fatalities, including homicides, in their Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.  While the data for 2011 are still preliminary (and subject to revision in 2013), 458 workers were homicide victims in the workplace in 2011; 368 of the victims worked in the private sector and 90 were government employees.  This represents a departure from as recently as 2003 when 561 private sector workers and 71 government workers were homicide victims.  Between 2003 and 2011:

  • Homicides in private sector workplaces have decreased by 26%
  • Homicides of government employees have increased by 27%

Government employees were about 20% of homicide victims in the workplace in 2011 despite the fact that they represent only about 15% of total employment (with private sector wage and salary workers and the self-employed accounting for the remaining 85%).  This means that the homicide rate per employee is now 39% higher for government workers than it is for private sector workers.

One reason for the high homicide rate for government workers is that the public sector includes many high risk occupations in law enforcement.  Over the past decade 70% of the homicides of government workers were to police, law enforcement and correctional institution employees.  Even excluding these high risk occupations over the past decade the workplace homicide rate increased in the government sector while it has declined in the private sector.

The homicide rate in private sector workplaces is less than one-third of the rate in 1992 (the first year the BLS published these data).  Government workplaces are also safer than they were in 1992; the homicide rates for government workers in 2011 was 24% lower than in 1992.   It is noteworthy, however, that all of the declines in workplace violence in the government sector occurred between 1992 and 1999.

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Private sector employers have substantially reduced the homicide rate in their businesses over the past two decades.  In contrast there has been no increase in workplace safety in the public sector over the past decade.  While private sector workplaces are the safest they have been since the BLS began collecting these data 20 years ago, many public sector workers in the front lines of law enforcement face a high risk of workplace violence.  A troubling trend over the past decade is that the homicide rate for government workers, outside of law enforcement, has not declined as it has in the private sector.

Note: I use the Current Population Survey to measure annual employment for government workers, private sector wage and salary workers, and self-employed individuals and use these figures to construct the homicide rates per employee in the chart above.  I have excluded the homicides on 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 from the chart.

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