Construction industry and labor union officials say a new federal report that construction fatalities declined 10% last year suggests the industry is getting safer. The officials also were encouraged that construction's 2010 fatality rate, a better indicator of safety trends, was down as well.

However, construction still has more fatalities than any other industry.

According to preliminary data released on Aug. 25 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 751 workers in the construction industry died on the job last year, compared with 834 in 2009. BLS will release its final 2010 numbers next spring.

BLS suggests the sluggish economy could have contributed to the decline in construction fatalities. Total construction hours worked fell 6% last year, following drops in the previous two years.

But construction's fatality rate, which adjusts for changes in the active workforce, also decreased last year, to 9.5 per 100,000 full-time-equivalent workers, compared with 9.9 in 2009. The longer-range trend in construction's fatality rate is generally positive. It was 9.7 in 2008, 10.8 in 2007 and 11.2 in 2006.

Construction and union officials say they believe the industry is safer than in previous years due to better enforcement, more emphasis on companies' safety training programs and cooperative programs, such as alliances between firms and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Sue Dong, data-center director for CPWR—The Center for Construction Research and Training, Silver Spring, Md., says construction fatalities have dropped significantly since the early to mid-1990s. She says, “We do see a decline, which means in addition to the impact of the economy, the construction industry performs better [and] is safer than years ago.”

She attributes the decline largely to the efforts of OSHA and groups like CPWR, which is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept.

The Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America say safety is a top priority among their members. ABC’s 2011 national chairman, Mike Uremovich, says, “Our goal is zero fatalities and zero recordables. In our view, all accidents are avoidable.”

This fall, ABC is launching a new cooperative program with insurance carrier CNA to improve safety performance at participating firms. Uremovich says the cooperative programs, rather than enforcement efforts, “are the way we need to go.”

Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, says that although "we are making progress," 751 fatalities "is a lot of people killed, especially compared to other countries where they do significantly better [in terms of] construction and safety fatalities."

Schneider says an OSHA program to reduce trench fatalities, which paired a strong message with tough enforcement, has made a "huge difference," cutting the number of fatalities from unprotected trenches in half over the past several years.

The laborers' health and safety fund is working with OSHA and other organizations to develop a similar program aimed at preventing falls on jobsites, Schneider adds.