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Fatalities in federal workforce increased, statistics show

Fatalities in the federal workplace climbed last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, even as the number of workplace deaths in the United States fell.

Fatal work injuries among government workers at all levels rose 5 percent to 476. But the federal workplace recorded a much sharper 19 percent increase in fatalities to 124, according to preliminary data from the bureau.

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National security jobs accounted for 75 deaths, while the Postal Service accounted for 19. Workers at justice, public order and safety activities at all levels of government recorded 179 fatalities; correctional institutions recorded another 94. Government workers in construction accounted for 28 deaths.

Advocates for worker safety expressed concern about what they see as a lack of information about danger in the federal workplace. Some called for more details on the types of jobs and causes of fatalities.

"Certainly any increase is a cause for concern," said Milly Rodriguez, the occupational health and safety specialist for American Federation of Government Employees in Washington. "It does make us want to look more deeply and more carefully at what might be causing some of these."

Private industry saw the reverse trend, with 6 percent fewer fatalities in 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

Four thousand, four hundred and five people died as a result of work-related injuries in the United States in 2013, the bureau found in its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, down nearly 5 percent from 4,628 in 2012.

Transportation incidents made up 40 percent of fatalities, followed by falls, being struck by equipment or objects, violence, exposure to harmful substances, fires and explosions.

Workplaces across all sectors have faced a growing threat from violence. Workplace violence ranked second in causes of job fatalities in the United States in 2012, the AFL-CIO reports.

"Violence is a growing problem in many sectors," including the Postal Service and federal correctional facilities, said Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the national AFL-CIO. "For federal workers engaged in those activities, it's a growing area of concern."

The job fatality rate has changed little in the past four years, the AFL-CIO says in its 2014 report "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect."

The union argues that overall workplace safety and health conditions have improved since Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. But it concludes that "too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death as workplace tragedies continue to remind us."

In an era of budget constraints, Rodriguez said, "health and safety tends to be one of those areas where money does not go." That limits training in health and safety and the ability to identify risks and prevent injuries, she said.

With 1,955 inspectors at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — including 864 at the federal level and the rest at state levels —the agency can inspect a given federal workplace only once every 139 years on average, and a state workplace only once every 79 years, the AFL-CIO says.

The union says penalties, which have increased under the Obama administration, are still too low to deter violations. They average $1,895 for a serious violation, the union says, and $5,600 for a case involving a fatality.

Eighty-four cases have been prosecuted criminally since 1970. The agency has a smaller staff and fewer inspectors than when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, but it's responsible for nearly double the number of workplaces and workers.

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"In general, OSHA has made little progress in dealing with emerging and existing hazards," said University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform in Washington. She said the agency has failed to finalize "significant" standards in the last few years.

"Penalties remain shockingly low," Steinzor said. "If you are grossly negligent and a worker is killed, the maximum penalty is six months in jail. The penalty for harassing a wild burro in a national park is one year."

Her center, disappointed with reform at the federal level, has begun to shift its focus to on the states.

In its Winning Safer Workplaces Manual, written as a tool for state and local advocates and released in June, the group says states should adopt their own workplace safety standards, such as health and safety committees on the job, safety and training requirements, and whistleblower protection laws.

"People shouldn't die when they go to work," Steinzor said. "There has been a recession on. Holding even when fewer people are working …is nothing to write home about. We should have bigger decreases than we do."

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