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Workplace-related deaths in Massachusetts decreased in 2018

Sixty-nine workers died as a result of work-related injuries and illnesses in Massachusetts in 2018, a slight decrease from the 74 workers who died in 2017, according to a report released Thursday. Nine worker deaths stemmed from workplace violence in 2018, nearly double the figure from 2017.

The 28-page report, released by union organization Massachusetts AFL-CIO and worker advocacy group Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, detailed statistics on workplace fatalities caused by occupational injuries and diseases.

Additionally, the report analyzed factors that contribute to workplace safety risks, including violence in the workplace, cancer-related illnesses, climate change and opioid misuse.

Jeff Newton, membership and communications coordinator at MassCOSH, said the organization releases the report every year to combat the assumption that workplace safety has been “mastered.” He said the report also proves to the public that many workers are still subject to preventable hazards that can lead to fatalities.

“What we do is we try to connect the dots and show the reader that there are predictable hazards that can have fatal consequences if they’re not mitigated by the employer,” Newton said. “… Instead of just being a sad report with depressing figures, we also go into what can be done to prevent these in the future.”

Fifty-nine of the deaths were a direct result of fatal injuries at work, with 36 percent of the deaths accounted for by the construction sector, according to the report. The remaining 10 deaths came from firefighters who died from work-related diseases, such as heart attacks, Hodgkin’s disease and cancer of the lung, throat, liver and bladder.

Newton said the leading cause of workplace death was transportation incidents, as there are a number of ways that large cars and trucks can cause fatal injury.

“If you are actually an employee who works around these vehicles,” Newton said, “you are technically in the most dangerous kind of environment we have in the state.”

Additionally, Newton said firefighters had an especially high risk for contracting cancer as a result of carcinogenic fumes released by combustible materials.

“[Firefighters] are exposing themselves to all sorts of chemicals, and over the long term, those can cause cancer,” Newton said. “And actually, it’s so well known they can cause cancer that firefighters are one of the only sectors of employment where if you get a certain kind of cancer, they will consider it a workplace-related issue.”

Newton said fire retardants posed an additional risk to firefighters and consumers, as they have been proven to be relatively useless and emit “all sorts of volatile compounds” when on fire.

As for workplace violence, Newton said it was important for employers to have a response protocol in place, especially for jobs that face a higher risk for violence such as late-night grocery cashiers.

“Having a plan to keep those workers safe on the job, whether it’s having them comply with everything a person holding a weapon would demand of them or kind of having a well-marked exit plan,” Newton said, “really just having a relatively comprehensive plan in place to at least acknowledge the fact that … employers have a responsibility to keep their workers safe.”

Newton said climate change may indirectly increase the risk of workplace injury by worsening the damage caused by natural disasters, and thus further exposing recovery workers to hazards such as moldy buildings, sharp objects and infectious diseases.

The report also noted fatalities from opioid overdose are on the rise as of 2017, as workers are increasingly becoming addicted following to painkillers they are prescribed for an injury and as a result of occupational stress.

Jonathan Rosen, a consultant at the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training, said in the report employers must eliminate the negative stigma associated with substance abuse and address the “underlying roots of despair” that push workers toward opioids.

“Low wages, mandatory overtime, split shi[f]ts, two tier wage systems,” Rosen said in the report, “and other economic disparities that cause work/life conflicts, chronic stress, and lead to mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide.”

Susan Eichhorn, 22, of Brookline, said she does not think the government and employers are doing enough to foster safe workplace environment.

“Culturally, I think there’s a big push to work beyond what might be comfortable,” Eichhorn said.

Kevin Doherty, 23, of Brighton, said he does not think Beacon Hill can do much to lower the safety risk for its disaster recovery workers.

“I know that after storms, those are emergency situations, so all hands on deck,” Doherty said. “I don’t know if you can really train for storms if you don’t know what’s coming.”

Fakhry Fauzi, 27, of Allston, said he recognizes the significance of work-related injury, as his doctor warned him that the stress and lack of sleep caused by his job as a software engineer may be detrimental to his health.

“[The job] is very stressful sometimes, it even takes away during our weekends,” Fauzi said. “The crunch sometimes can go all the way to 2, 3 a.m.”

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