The scene was an icy morning in western Maryland, along the Garrett County and Allegany County lines.  Mr. Dwight Samuel Colmer, 41, a truck driver with Western Maryland Lumber Company was hauling a load of coal just before 11:00 AM when his truck began to slide.  The State of Maryland’s “Motor Vehicle Accident Report” says:

“…hit guard rail, and overturned to the passenger side.  Driver was ejected and crushed under the dump truck and died from the injuries.”

The report indicates the incident occurred on a public road called Bartlett Street.  Is this a work-related fatality? 

Well, it depends on which agency you ask.

Yes, would be the answer from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which publishes an annual census of fatal occupational injuries (CFOI).  (Note: injuries, but not illnesses.)   BLS’s process includes gathering the data, verifying it using multiple sources, and tabulating the yearly count of deaths on-the-job.  Their sources include State agencies, workers’ compensation records and newspaper accounts; the death count in 2006 was 5,703.  By far, the single greatest event-cause was transportation-related incidents, representing more than 40 percent (2,413 deaths), and more than half of these are classified as “highway incidents.”  Transportation-related on-the-job fatalities have been a consistent feature in the BLS Census over the last decade.

So, if transportation incidents are the single biggest cause of work-related FATAL injuries, does OSHA consider them work-related?  No, not really. 

Here’s why I say that:

OSHA’s reporting regulations for fatalities (29 CFR 1904.39) does not require employers to report to OSHA a worker’s death in a motor vehicle accident.  Specifically, the regulation says:

“If the motor vehicle accident occurs on a public street or highway, and does not occur in a construction work zone, you do not have to report the incident to OSHA.”

So, if they aren’t reported to federal OSHA or the 21 comparable State-based OSH programs, they are just written off “traffic accidents.”   The local police, or sheriff or highway patrol will usually fill out an accident report, but that’s it—there’s no follow-up with the employer to determine if the death could have been prevented.  There’s nobody asking whether the company had an adequate vehicle maintenance program (e.g., brakes, tires), and safe work policies and driver safety training.

When I look at the BLS data for 2006, I see 1,329 incidents in which a worker died in a highway crash.  That’s nearly 25 percent of all fatal work-related injuries.  A 2004 report in the MMWR noted:

“despite overall declines in the number and rate of occupational fatalities from all causes, annual numbers of work-related roadway deaths increased during the decade, and rates showed little change.”

I suppose the death last month of truck driver Dwight Samuel Colmer, 41, troubles me because of my experience with the family of Chad Cook.  Mr. Chad Cook, 25, died in late November 2005 when the coal truck he was driving ran off the road and overturned.  Because it was considered a “highway accident,” no worker safety agency investigated it.  That is, until Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette determined that the fatality actually occurred on a coal mine operator’s property; he wrote about MSHA’s egregious error in April 2007.  

If the truck crash had not been dismissed as just a “highway accident,” perhaps Chad Cook’s family would have learned whether his death could have been prevented.  What about the families of the 1,329 other work-related fatal highway incidents?  I bet some of them have questions about whether their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented.  But, OSHA doesn’t even want to know about them. 

Again…

“If the motor vehicle accident occurs on a public street or highway, and does not occur in a construction work zone, you do not have to report the incident to OSHA.”

Of course, some people will scoff at the idea of OSHA investigating “traffic accidents.”  Pleeeze, they’ll say, an employer isn’t responsible for what happens to an employee after they leave the workplace.  But, what about when the road is your workplace.  Don’t these workers have a right to safe working conditions?

I’m not suggesting that every worker fatality involving a motor vehicle on a public road could have been prevented by the employer.  I am disturbed, however, that these deaths seem to be dismissed as irrelevant by our worker safety agencies.  The way I see it, what if 10 percent of these fatalities could have been prevented by some reasonable action on the employers’ part?  That could be 133 lives saved per year.  Wouldn’t that be worthwhile?  

Public health is about prevention.  In order to prevent these transportation-related worker fatalities we need information obtained through meaningful investigations.  Truck drivers, like Chad Cook and Dwight Samuel Colmer, and other workers who die in their workplace—in a vehicle on the road—deserve it.    

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