JEFFERSON CITY — Federal statistics suggest Missouri has become a less safe place to work.
According to a recent Department of Labor release, the number of fatal work injuries in Missouri rose by almost 21 percent during 2002 with 30 more deaths than the previous year.
Missouri ranked ninth-highest in the nation in fatal occupational injuries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kansas and Iowa combined did not even equal Missouri’s 175 work-related deaths.
Ken Wilkes, chief of research and analysis for Missouri’s Labor Department, said the figures got the department’s attention.
“It certainly stands out,” he said. “An increase by something like that is certainly not what you want to see happen.”
Yet neither he nor other officials would speculate as to why the surge happened.
This year, the state’s agriculture, forestry and fishing industry division displaced the construction industry from the position of having the most work-related fatalities.
Debbie Vaughan, a research analyst for the state Labor Department, said that the numbers may not be conclusive because several factors go into the findings. Vaughan said the department receives its information on fatalities from outside sources and relies heavily on coroners and medical examiners. If the incident is not reported to the department, it will not have the incident recorded.
To promote worker safety, the department has several programs to assist employers in identifying workplace hazards. One program offers on-site safety and health consultations to help small businesses comply with federal standards. However, Labor Department spokeswoman Tammi Cavender said it’s up to businesses to take advantage of the department’s program.
“We can try and increase our availability and visibility to them, but if they don’t want us, they don’t want us,” Cavender said. Fewer than 500 of the 144,000 small businesses in Missouri requested the consultation this year.
Cavender said she did not foresee any large-scale changes in the department’s programs.
A glimmer of hope for 2003 remains, though. For the 2003 fiscal year, Missouri’s Division of Worker’s Compensation has filed only 138 claims of fatal work injuries.
However, Cavender said that not all cases are filed with the state agency, so the final results will have to wait for next year’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report.