The spate of four worker deaths in the Baltimore area in eight days this month reflects a rise in fatal workplace injuries in Maryland depicted in the most recent government data.
In 2016, 92 people died of injuries while working in Maryland, a 33 percent jump from 2015, when 69 work-related fatalities were reported, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
While such deaths remain uncommon, it is unusual to have so many occur in such a short time as happened this month in the Baltimore region.
On June 5, 20-year-old construction worker Kyle Hancock died when a deep trench where he was working on a sewer line in Baltimore’s Clifton Park neighborhood collapsed around him. A 31-year-old construction worker, Michael David Zeller of Essex, was pronounced dead June 8 after an accident in which he fell down an elevator shaft at a building being remodeled for McCormick & Co.’s planned headquarters in Hunt Valley.
Another worker was fatally injured after being pinned by a branch from a tree he was trimming on Sunday in Annapolis. And, on Wednesday, another construction worker, a man in his mid-30s, was standing on a scaffold while installing siding on a new house in Odenton when he came into contact with a live electrical wire and was fatally electrocuted.
All four separate deadly incidents this month are being investigated by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office and it could be weeks before any of the investigations are concluded and the causes of the accidents are determined.
All too often, employers fall short when it comes to knowing what is required under federal and state occupational and health safety laws, said Jeffrey Lancaster, president and CEO of Lancaster Safety Consulting Inc., a workplace safety consultant based in Wexford, Pa.
“They try to work safely, but they are often unaware of an employer’s responsibilities and duties,” which generally involve providing a workplace free of known health and safety hazards, continually assessing a workplace and taking preventive measures.
Accidents that involve slips or falls remain among the most common and can happen in almost any setting, he said. Risks tend to be greater in construction or on jobs involving trenching, chemicals and driving, Lancaster said.
When companies need to cut costs, departments that oversee safety often are targeted, said Travis Trader, director of industrial hygiene for Environmental Health and Safety Solutions in Parkton, a safety consultant on transportation and government contracts.
“Quite a few of them cut back a few years ago, and we haven’t really seen the growth back in those divisions yet,” Trader said.
Trader was not familiar with any of the recent incidents of worker deaths.
Statistics from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics show workplace fatalities in Maryland peaked in 2006, with 106 deaths reported that year. The number dropped to 60 in 2008 before increasing slightly each year through 2013, when 79 deaths were reported. In 2014, 73 deaths were reported. Results for last year won’t be published until December.
Workplace fatalities rose nationwide in 2016 as well as in Maryland. In the United States, 5,190 workplace deaths were reported, up from 4,836 in 2015.
Of the 92 deaths in Maryland in 2016, 30 occurred in trade, transportation and utilities fields, with 21 deaths in construction.
Lancaster said it can be easy for employers with a history of no accidents to let themselves become complacent.
“Many employers have a good safety record, but it doesn’t mean they are following lawful requirements,” Lancaster said. “We believe employers should reach out before hand,” to OSHA, insurance carriers or consultants, and “not just put a safety program together based on their own knowledge.”