Fatal Subtraction: Statistical MIAs on the Industrial Battlefield
48 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2013
Date Written: 1994
In social or natural science investigations it is or should be methodologically self-explanatory that before any phenomenon can be counted, it must be conceptualized and defined. To be sure, certain tricky definitional issues do exist that require clarification before industrial injury fatalities can be counted, but they have largely been resolved or at least disposed of. For many decades, however, the more urgent issue has been for the state to implement adequate injury surveillance in order to conduct an accurate count; the resulting data could then be used for epidemiological studies on the basis of which the state could intervene in employers’ operations to impose safer working conditions. This article analyzes the history of the failure to perform such an enumeration and its consequences for the health and safety of workers in the United States. In order to provide a more finely textured sense of the issues, throughout illustrative material is taken from construction, one of the most dangerous industries.
The article begins with an account of the statistical chaos and confusion engendered by the murderous pace of production at the beginning of the twentieth century. Following a survey of flawed private and government efforts to count the dead at work since the 1920s, the focus shifts to the statistical and enforcement defects of OSHA. After analyzing the fatality trends uncovered by the new Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries and a renewed tendency to divert attention from the antagonism between safety and profits, the article concludes with a critique of one important use to which occupational fatality data have been put — economic and legal theories that assert that workers in especially dangerous occupations are compensated for the risks to which they are exposed.
Keywords: industrial fatalities, statistics, OSHA, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, construction industry, National Safety Council, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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