WASHINGTON—Fewer and fewer Americans are coming home from work in coffins.
It's a long-term trend in workplace safety that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the nation's top public-health authority, considers "one of the greatest health achievements in the 20th century."
Today's workplaces are roughly 40,000 lives a year safer than they were in the 1930s, according to the CDC. By way of comparison, 40,000 U.S. women died of breast cancer last year and 42,000 Americans died on highways.
The biggest factors in improving workplace safety, analysts say, are:
_The expansion of U.S. service industries, which are relatively safe.
_Tougher worker-safety standards, whether voluntary or imposed under laws such as the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act.
_The reduction or export of high-risk mining, metals and manufacturing jobs.
_An increase in the number of working women, whose accident rate is about a tenth that of men.
_A decline in the number of small farms, where worker fatalities always have been high. "The kids didn't get to use the new $50,000 tractor," explained Guy Toscano, the retired director of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "They got the old one without the roll bar and the other safety equipment."
On farms, as in other workplaces at earlier times, fatalities fell after safer machinery and processes kicked in. In mines, for example, an average of 3,329 Americans a year died on the job from 1911 to 1915, industry tallies show. Last year, 159 miners did, according to the BLS workplace-fatality census.
Similarly, at least 61 U.S. industrial workers per 100,000 died on the job in 1913, according to the best BLS estimate. These days, 4 per 100,000 is the rate for all U.S. workers.
The comparisons are rough because the data collected have varied over the years. The BLS counts only people who are killed on the job: not those injured, who are far more numerous, or those felled years later by work-linked diseases, such as black lung among coal miners. Nonetheless, scholars and federal agencies tend to rely on BLS figures because they're based on death certificates, are relatively complete and are collected by consistent methods.
The latest numbers, released in August, showed that commercial fishing is the most dangerous U.S. job. Logging is second, followed by piloting or navigating planes, working in structural iron and steel on construction sites, and collecting refuse. The safest fields are office work and professions such as law, medicine, accounting and architecture.
Overall, workplace deaths totaled 5,702 for 2005, about 200 shy of the all-time low in 2003.
Three of the four leading causes of workplace fatalities are holding steady: highway deaths, falls and a category called "struck by object." There's been progress in the fourth: homicides. Convenience store employees and gas station operators—all of whom work with cash at night, often alone, and in all kinds of neighborhoods—are the main beneficiaries. About 75 percent of workplace killings begin as robberies.
For cabbies, the lifesavers are video cameras and partitions that separate drivers and passengers, according to Lucille Burrascano, a retired New York police detective who's worked on the cab-violence problem for 25 years. In 1981, she said, cabdriver fatalities in the city totaled 26. This year to date there's been only one.
For convenience store and gas station workers, one key was better lighting and visibility inside and out, according to workplace-violence consultant Rosemary Erickson, the president of Athena Research Corp. of San Diego, Calif., and Sioux Falls, S.D. Among her clients: 7-Eleven, Burger King, Wawa Food stores and British Petroleum.
Employees are instructed to cooperate when robbers confront them. Stores also discourage robbers with perimeter fencing that makes it harder to escape, plus drop boxes for cash and big signs noting that the register holds $40 cash or less.
The last strategy, along with many of the others, reflects insights that Erickson gained from interviewing more than 400 adult and teen robbers in Texas prisons. Among her findings was that $50 in cash motivated far more robbers than $40 did.
Whatever the reasons, the BLS reports that workplace homicides in 2005 were down to 564 from a 1994 peak of 1,080.
While the overall workplace-fatality numbers show dramatic improvement in the last generation, they also show that the gains are unequal. Fatalities among Hispanic men, for example, are up, especially in the South, whose workplaces are more dangerous than the rest of the nation's, according to Dana Loomis, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health in Chapel Hill.
Loomis and other researchers theorize that Hispanics generally do more dangerous work for less safety-conscious employers and aren't as well trained due to language problems.
The South's longer outdoor work season in hazardous fields such as construction and timber probably is a factor in its higher workplace-fatality rates. Toscano and Loomis also noted the South's abundance of small, rural and non-union companies, whose owners, they say, tend to invest less in safety.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average U.S. worker faced a 4 in 100,000 risk of being killed on the job in 2005.
Commercial fishing and related work, with a fatality rate of 118 per 100,000, was the most dangerous job, followed by logging (93), aircraft pilots and co-pilots (67), iron and steel workers at construction sites (56) and refuse collectors (44).
By contrast, doctors, lawyers and other professionals and their staffs had a 0.8 rate and office workers, 0.5.
Here are the year-by-year numbers of U.S. workplace homicides from 1992 through 2005:
1,044, 1,074, 1,080, 1,036, 927, 860, 714, 651, 677, 643, 609, 632, 559, 564.