Why Do Construction Fatality Numbers Continue to Rise?

Why Do Construction Fatality Numbers Continue to Rise?

In 2022 1,069 construction workers died on the job according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number puts construction at the top of a disturbing chart – the same chart it has topped since record-keeping began – reflecting the most on-the-job deaths in the U.S.

A chart showing how many fatalities occur across various industries. The construction industry had the most deaths in 2022, with 1,069, followed by transportation and warehousing with 1,053, and professional and business services with 598.
Construction fatality statistics continue to top all other industries. Data credit: Construction Dive

Fatalities on construction sites increased by 7.7% in 2022. Across all industries, a worker died every 96 minutes on the job in the U.S., and there was an alarming increase in workplace suicides, which increased by 13.1%. The construction industry has a higher fatality rate overall than every other industry; this includes a larger-than-average number of substance abuse issues, overdoses, and suicides compared to other industries.

The History of Workplace Injury & Fatality Data

Prior to 1970 and the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that established OSHA, private construction contractors and businesses like coal mines, railroads, and oil rigs were not required to report statistics on workplace fatalities. According to one source, a leading “skyscraper construction firm” admitted that one worker perished every 33 hours on site between 1910 and 1920. That’s more than one fatality a week, approximately 65 deaths annually, and that’s just the statistic from one company.

Famous black & white photo of construction workers eating boxed lunches on a girder high above New York City, entitled “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper,” by Charles Clyde Ebbets.
The iconic “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper” image shot by Charles Clyde Ebbets in 1932 reflects how our attitudes about construction safety have changed.

When you consider the construction involved in the handful of industries listed above, and the fact that no one had to report any incidents, injuries, or deaths that occurred while workers toiled in harrowing conditions, the potentially unreported loss of life in construction, extraction, and related industries prior to 1970 is staggering.

100 years later, thankfully, the number of construction site deaths is significantly smaller; yet jobsite fatalities are still far higher than every other industry, and are rising, after staying largely “flat” since 2012.

The Fatal Four, Plus One

In mid-April of 2023, OSHA released its raw data on work-related injury and illness across all industries, but has not yet provided analysis of the millions of pieces of information. If the underlying causes of accidents, injuries, and fatalities remain consistent with prior years, the “fatal four” plus one, continue to take lives. Many of those fatalities could have been prevented or avoided if safety protocols were understood and followed by everyone on site.  

Almost everyone on a job site is familiar with OSHA’s Fatal 4, also sometimes called the Focus 4:

  • Slips, Trips & Falls
  • Struck By Accidents
  • Caught In-Between Accidents
  • Electrocutions

The data has remained consistent over the last decade for the top four causes of death on construction sites, which is why most safety training rightly focuses on them. According to analysis from The Associated General Contractors of America, falls accounted for 38% of fatalities, struck by deaths account for 8%, electrocutions, 6%, and fatalities caused by being struck, caught in-between, or crushed by materials or equipment were at 5% in 2022.

Incidences of caught in-between and struck by accidents as related to trenching activity have experienced an alarming uptick in recent years. So much so that OSHA issued an enhanced enforcement directive to address the “alarming rise” in trench related fatalities.

The “Plus 1” to OSHA’s Fatal 4 is silicosis, the incurable lung condition caused by breathing respirable crystalline silica dust (RCS), that is the byproduct of concrete, stone, and brick cutting, coring, and drilling activities. In 2019, OSHA put forth an initiative to raise awareness about silicosis and in 2022, the administration added enhanced enforcement and reporting measures for those who work with cut stone to improve PPE requirements and incidence reporting for RCS.

With so much emphasis on construction safety and saving lives, the increase in construction fatalities is troubling. Until the 2023 data is analyzed, it is difficult to come to specific conclusions, but two factors seem to be contributing to the increase in fatal construction accidents.

  1. Workforce Shortage
    Data released at the beginning of 2024 demonstrates just how tight the construction labor market is. A 500,000 skilled worker shortage is cited as one of the biggest issues in completing large-scale projects and infrastructure upgrades. That means supervisors and foremen are pushing harder than ever to get jobs done, and that stress trickles directly down to each individual contractor and tradesperson.
  2. Substance Use on the Job
    As noted at the top of this piece, the construction industry has an increasing problem with mental health and substance use/abuse on the job. Construction Safety Week began addressing this issue on a national level in 2020 and continues that focus with this year’s theme – Value Every Voice.

Memorializing the Fallen & Bringing Additional Awareness

Did you know that there is a national Workers Memorial Day in the U.S., sponsored by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration?

There is. It was established in 1970, the same year as OSHA, by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to commemorate those who have lost their lives at work and to draw attention to workplace accidents, fatalities, and the need for ever-increasing safety on the job. Now the event has been expanded to a week-long series of events from to provide industry and employer education on health and safety.

The event’s organizers have expanded beyond its union roots to include OSHA, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and the U.S. Department of Labor. There is even a virtual “memorial wall,” created in conjunction with the United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF), where families can send photos of their loved ones lost to work-related accidents to be memorialized.

The goal of all of these initiatives and reports remains the same – to eliminate construction-related fatalities throughout our industry. Join us in this mission by registering for a complimentary Construction Safety Week talk, sponsored by GPRS, today.

Frequently Asked Questions

What role does safety training and education play in preventing construction accidents?

Proper safety training that includes best practices surrounding OSHA’s Fatal 4: avoidance of slips, trips & falls, caught in-between, struck-by, and electrocution accidents, plus additional training and resources for mental health awareness, heat-related illnesses, etc. have made a real impact on construction safety. Until 2021-2022, the industry had seen a marked and continual decrease in job site incidents and fatalities.

GPRS’ Construction Safety Week talks include all of the above best practices and PPE use, plus silicosis awareness, and put the focus and responsibility for safety on each individual in the workplace. Each person who attends a GPRS CSW event leaves with a personal safety plan designed to protect them and help them protect their co-workers.

What are the consequences for companies that fail to prioritize safety on their worksites?

OSHA and other state and federal regulatory agencies take workplace accidents very seriously. Fines and regulatory penalties, legal actions, and expensive insurance premiums are just some of the ramifications of failing to protect construction workers on site. Beyond that, when there is a major construction accident or a fatality, the public scrutiny and media attention can directly and negatively impact your reputation and your bottom line.

In recent years, OSHA has issued enhanced enforcement initiatives and investigations that have even called for state agencies to criminally prosecute construction companies whose non-compliance issues have led to fatalities.

Are there any emerging trends or technologies that could help reduce construction fatalities in the future?

Striking utilities like gas or electrical lines underground, or hitting a post tension cable or conduit inside a concrete slab are major factors that contribute to workplace accidents, injuries, damages, and fatalities.

GPRS is pursuing 100% subsurface damage prevention and currently maintains a 99.8%+ accuracy rate in subsurface utility locating and mapping, and concrete scanning and imaging. When you know what’s underground and inside before you cut, core, dig, or drill, your chances of a mishap fall dramatically.

While the tools of our damage prevention trade – ground penetrating radar, electromagnetic locators, and other equipment – help you see what is underneath the surface, the new technology we’ve created to help you visualize your existing conditions and infrastructure may be the most effective safety tool we can provide. SiteMap®, powered by GPRS, is our new digital utility and infrastructure mapping and data management tool, and all GPRS customers receive a complimentary SiteMap® Personal subscription to help them Intelligently Visualize The Built World® to dig, collaborate, manage, and build better.