Workplace Deaths Are Dropping
On September 8, 2009, 24 year-old Annie Le, a Yale graduate student, was strangled in a campus research facility. Her body was found 5 days later, on what would have been her wedding day. A laboratory technician, Raymond Clarke, III, also 24, was arrested and charged with her murder. Although the motive behind Le’s murder is still unknown, investigators are looking into allegations that Clark was angry with Le about the condition of the cages that housed mice she used in her research. The New Haven police chief has characterized the crime as a case of workplace violence, and a letter to the campus community from President Richard Levin reaffirmed the university’s “zero tolerance for violent, threatening and abusive behavior.”
While Le’s murder brings the issue of workplace homicides into sharp focus, the larger picture shows a trend toward safer places to work. In 2008, workplace homicides dropped 18%, and they have been steadily declining since the 1990s. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 517 workplace homicides in 2008, a reduction of 52% from the high of 1,080 reported in 1994.
Workplace deaths due to accidents dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded (PDF), 3.6 deaths per 100,000. Many of those accidents happen behind the wheel: the odds a workplace death will be caused by a transportation incident are 1 in 2.46. In comparison, the odds a workplace death will be a homicide are 1 in 9. Even the odds a workplace death will be caused by a fall are 1 in 6.57.
There are several reasons for the overall decrease in fatalities at work. First of all, fewer people were employed in 2008 than in 2007, and those that were employed were working fewer hours. And high oil prices during the summer of 2008 meant that less business travel took place.
Beyond numbers of fatalities, the rate of deaths per worker also dropped in 2008. Some economists think that the changing composition of the work force had an impact on the numbers. For example, many workplace deaths occur in construction and building jobs. When the construction industry slowed, some of those potential fatalities were prevented. The figures show a mixed bag of safety, though -- while highway deaths decreased, the number of people who fell to their deaths increased in 2008.
Still, not all the news points to safer workplaces. Suicides in workplaces shot up 28 percent in 2008 (PDF), and some economists attributed the increase to a sluggish economy and low worker morale. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were some common elements to the people who took their own lives at work: they tended to be male, aged between 45 and 54, and white. Workers in management occupations were the largest group to commit suicide.
Workplaces continue to be getting safer for most people doing their jobs, but tragedies do happen, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in suicides, and the brutal murder of Annie Le. President Levin of Yale pointed out that the tragedy that took place on his campus could have happened “in any city, in any university, or in any workplace, and at its core the murder was a reflection of the “dark side of the human soul.””