Robert Fitch had worked for the same grain milling company for 30 years when he fell from a belt-operated manlift.
His brother, who also worked for the same company, in Lincoln, Nebraska, tried to revive him but Robert was fatally injured by the 80ft fall.
“My uncle’s life was cut short due to a device he told my mother he hated riding just a week prior,” said Tonya Ford, Fitch’s niece. “He never had the chance to give his daughter away or meet his grandchildren.”
Fitch’s lift did not have any fall protection when he died in January 2009, an issue his niece said was due to it being installed prior to 1971, meaning it did not need to meet more stringent design safety rules, according to an official from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) at the time . The lift, and similar lifts, were eventually replaced by the milling company with equipment that included fall protections following an Osha investigation.
Shortly after Fitch’s death, Ford founded United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, a not-for-profit dedicated to offering support and resources for people affected by workplace fatalities.
“Losing a loved one due to a preventable work-related incident is devastating,” said Ford.
Thousands of Americans die at work each year
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 5,147 workplace fatalities in the US in 2017. Among these fatalities, 887 were due to fatal falls, the highest level reported in the 26-year history of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.
There are two different categories for fatal falls: falls on the same level, such as slips or trips, and falls to a lower level. Both increased in 2017, with the majority, 713 fatalities, a result of workers falling to a lower level. In 2018, the latest year data is available, fatal falls decreased to 791, though overall workplace fatalities increased from the prior year to 5,250.
The US consistently outpaces other industrialized nations in workplace fatalities:
The average rate of workplace fatalities in the United States has hovered at 3.5 deaths for every 100,000 workers over the past decade.
In comparison, workplace fatality rates in the UK have remained under 1.0 death for every 100,000 workers over the past decade, and under 1.5 deaths for every 100,000 workers on average for the 15 earliest member states of the EU.
Transportation incidents are responsible for the highest number of deaths at work, and for more than a third of all work fatalities.
Among the industries where workers are falling to their death, tower climbers have experienced fatality rates up to 10 times higher than construction workers. In one of the most dangerous job occupations in the US, tower climbers are among the workers at the highest risk for fatal falls in the workplace.
Several workers who have to climb wireless and other communication towers fall to their death on the job every year.
Jonce Hubble, 41, was one of these workers. While descending from a radio tower in Anniston, Alabama, in July 2010 a bucket truck operator working for a third-party contractor backed into the tower Hubble and a co-worker were on, causing them to fall 40 to 50 feet.
If you’re falling from a tower, you have a few seconds to think about what’s comingDr Bridgette Hester
“My husband was tied off, coming down, and someone collapsed the tower. I knew what he was thinking,” said Dr Bridgette Hester, Hubble’s wife. “He was conscious, which completely shocked me to begin with because it was a 40- to 50-ft fall. He was cursing, in the middle of screaming and yelling when he passed out because of blood loss.”
Hubble later died in the hospital due to injuries sustained from the fall. Hester used funds from the wrongful death settlement reached with the crane company to start the Hubble Foundation, a not-for-profit focused on providing support services to families of loved ones affected by the workplace deaths or injuries of tower climbers.
“If you’re falling from a tower, you have a few seconds to think about what’s coming,” said Hester. “That is what haunts most families – what was running through their head, what were they thinking about, how scared were they, and they wrestle with that in unimaginable ways.”
Hester said many companies take safety seriously, but incidents occur due to contractors cutting corners or some companies failing to take responsibility for keeping their workers safe in providing proper equipment and training to workers.
In the steel industry, several workers die every year from a fatal fall, and the occupation is regularly cited as one of the most dangerous in the US.
Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment at the United Steelworkers union, said: “They’re all preventable. I’ve seen a lot of fatalities where you walk in and you think: ‘I can’t believe this didn’t happen 10 years ago.’”
According to Wright, fatalities most often happen in shifts where supervision is lacking in cases where routine safety procedures are ignored, such as workers rushing to fix a broken piece of equipment to return to production as soon as possible.
He said many fatal falls are underreported because of how coroners rule on causes of death. In cases where a cardiac event was included as part of a workplace fall, Osha will often refuse to code these incidents as workplace fatalities even if the United Steelworkers union argues the victim would have survived the cardiac event otherwise.
“Every single one of these deaths is preventable,” said John Dony, director of environmental, health, safety and sustainability at the National Safety Council, a not-for-profit safety and health organization. “Just like any other risk that an employer has in the workplace, taking a systemic approach to eliminating those risks are what’s at play here. So thinking about policy, procedures, training and technology to … prevent these incidents.”
Dony said in addition to looking for ways to eliminate risks and hazards, employers should be using administrative controls, such as proper training, providing personal protective equipment and creating systems where production pressures, miscommunication or poor training don’t enable something to go wrong where it could cause a worker to get injured or die in the workplace.
“No one has to die at work,” Dony said.