Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Nevada had the second sharpest decline in workplace fatalities in the nation last year, a drop that experts attributed to the slowdown in construction and a renewed emphasis on safety in that industry.
An annual census of workplace deaths, compiled by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and released last week, found the total number of workers who died on the job in the state fell by 44 percent, from 71 in 2007 to 40 last year. Nevada, one of 35 states reporting fewer fatalities, was topped by New Hampshire, where workplace deaths dropped by half.
Nationally, 5,071 workers died on the job, the lowest number since the agency began tracking the data in 1992. The Nevada figure is a seven-year low, matching the number of deaths in 2001.
Although Labor Secretary Hilda Solis called the record declines a “change in the right direction,” she said she views the report as a cue for her agency to step up enforcement efforts. “Working with both employers and employees, the Department of Labor will not be satisfied until there are no workplace deaths due to failure to comply with safety rules,” Solis said in a statement.
In its report, the agency says the recession likely played a role in the overall decline. Nationally, the number of average hours worked fell by 1 percent in 2008, and industries that have historically accounted for a significant share of worker deaths, such as construction, had deep declines.
Average employment in the Nevada construction industry, one of the state’s economic pillars, fell by more than 16,000 jobs from 2007 to 2008, and the state remains among the hardest hit by the recession. Strip construction projects, victims of the financial meltdown and credit crunch, either stalled or slowed in 2008.
Experts attribute the fewer fatalities here to the swift economic downturn and a change in safety culture after a string of deaths on Strip projects rocked the local building trades.
A dozen construction workers died in the $32 billion building boom on the Strip. Seven of those workers died in 2007, four died last year and one died in 2006. In June 2008 — after the sixth death at MGM Mirage’s CityCenter in 18 months — workers staged a walkout, demanding safety improvements.
The Labor Department has taken the rare step of sending a task force to Nevada to review the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency responsible for enforcing safety regulations and investigating workplace accidents.
In 2008, fatalities in the state included five falls, 12 object and equipment encounters, three exposures to harmful substances, four cases of workplace violence and 14 transportation accidents.
Nationally, construction remains the most dangerous of any industry in the private sector, but the field had 20 percent fewer fatalities, from 1,204 in 2007 to 969 last year. Even the group with the largest number of deaths — specialty trade contractors — had 19 percent fewer fatal accidents.
The union-affiliated Center for Construction Research and Training welcomed the decline in construction deaths, but noted the overall downturn in the industry and the need for continued improvements in safety and health training.
A representative sounded a cautious note.
“It is wise to look at the long view,” said Xiuwen Dong, the center’s data director, “and see if the decline will continue in coming years.”
Sun reporter Alex Richards contributed to this story.