Construction workplace deaths and the industry's fatality rate both declined in 2017, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says.

The latest annual BLS report on fatal accidents, released on Dec. 18, shows that private-sector construction deaths on the job edged down 2% in 2017, to 971.

But 2017’s construction fatalities still were higher than 2015’s 937 and 2014’s 899.

The report says that construction’s 2017 fatality rate also fell, to 9.5 per 100,000 full-time workers, from 10.1 in 2016 and in 2015.

But some types of construction-related jobs had much higher fatality rates than the industry average. For example, BLS says roofers’ 2017 fatal-accident rate was 45.2 and the rate for structural iron and steel workers was 33.4.

Among construction sectors, the number of fatalities rose 8% in buildings construction last year, to 196; heavy and civil engineering fatal accidents declined 4%, to 152 and specialty trade contractors’ total dipped 3%, to 610.

Unions, Contractor Groups Comment

Chris Trahan Cain, safety and health director for North America's Building Trades Unions, said in an email message to ENR, "While we are encourged that both the rate and the number of construction workers fatalities decreased in 2017, each workplace fatality is a cause of great concern." She added, "Each death has a terrible impact on the families of these workers and these tragedies are preventable."

Cain also noted that the number of construction fatalities from falls rose slightly last year, to 386 from 384. She said that will motivate the building trades to continue to focus on the Campaign to Prevent Falls in Construction program, which they initiated in 2012 with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Kevin Cannon, the Associated General Contractors of America's senior director for safety and health services, said in an interview, "In the face of a skilled-labor shortage and contractors struggling to find workers to complete the projects, to us, it appears that they're  placing more of a focus on making sure that workers—many of whom may not have had construction experience—are safe and overall the projects and jobsites are safe."

Still, Cannon adds that even with the improved results for 2017, more needs to be done. He says, "We're not saying it's acceptable, but we're saying it's a step in the right direction."

Cannon also singles out falls as a major cause of construction deaths. He says, "Falls continue to be the leading cause of fatalities in our industry so I don't think any focus or emphasis on falls is misplaced."  BLS figures show that falls accounted for 386—or 40%—of the 971 construction fatal accidents in 2017. [View BLS 2017 table A-1 showing types of fatal accidents, by industry here. Scroll down to "Construction".]

Stephen M. Wiltshire, Associated Builders and Contractors director of safety, said in a statement emailed to ENR, "While we are encouraged to see the annual fatality rates decrease [in 2017], one fatality is still too many, especially as construction spending increases."

Wiltshire added the that industry needs to continue emphasizing an "industry-wide culture of safety" through education programs and efforts such as ABC's Safety Training Evaluation Process "until we reach the only acceptable number of construction workplace fatalities: zero."

All-industry picture

Overall, BLS said, total fatal U.S. workplace accidents decreased by less than 1%, to 5,147 and the fatality rate was down slightly, to 3.5 from 2016’s 3.6.

Loren Sweatt, acting assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health, said in a statement, “While today’s report shows a decline in the number of workplace fatalities, the loss of even one worker is too many.”

Sweatt added, "Through comprehensive enforcement and compliance assistance that includes educating job creators about their responsibilities under the law, and providing robust education opportunities to workers, OSHA is committed to ensuring the health and safety of the American workforce."

Sweatt also noted that the number of crane-related deaths decreased last year to 33, the lowest level since BLS started publishing the fatal accident reports, in 2003.

Jordan Barab, a former top Occupational Safety and Health Administration official in the Obama administration, said in his “Confined Space” blog that the improvement in the number of crane-related fatal injuries could be traced to OSHA’s issuance of a new cranes and derricks standard. The construction crane standard was published in 2008; its effective date was in November 2010.

That regulation’s crane operator certification provisions took effect on Nov. 10, 2018. Its requirement for evaluating and documenting operators’ competency takes effect next February.

Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s safety and health director, said in a statement, “The BLS report shows that too many workers are being killed on the job.”

She added that the “sobering report comes at a time when the number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors is at the lowest point in decades and the Mine Safety and Health Administration inspection force has dwindled.”

Story updated on 12/20/2018 with comments from Associated General Contractors of America and additional data on construction fatalities caused by falls.