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Safe at work? Not in construction or driving a truck

More injuries in the "gig economy"
In the "gig economy," more injuries for construction workers and truck drivers 01:11
  • The "gig" economy is causing more accidents and fatalities among Americans who work as contractors.
  • Employers are cutting back on safety and training in key industries like construction.
  • A robust economy means truckers are working longer and harder -- and getting less sleep.
  • Older workers and those new on a job -- often lacking training -- are most likely to be injured or killed.

Joey Hale and Ben Ricks were cutting pipe from a scaffold in an elevator shaft last June. Their job was to help turn the hulk of the Old Shoe Co. in St. Louis into a high-end hotel. The cable snapped, and they fell six floors to their death. Neither was wearing a safety harness.

They weren't alone. Elevator accidents have more than doubled in recent years, as both older, less-agile workers and younger ones with little or no training are working longer hours in dangerous construction and transportation jobs.

Overall government statistics don't reflect how hazardous this corner of the workplace has become. Workers compensation insurers, which have to pay when someone gets injured or killed on the job, report that 2015 to 2018 were four banner years when revenue exceeded business costs and losses by more than 5 percent. Fatal injuries in manufacturing and wholesale trade were the lowest since 2003, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But that may not be a reason to celebrate. Vice President Jerry Theodorou of global investment firm Conning, which serves the insurance industry, warned in a report that this may be "as good as it gets." Nearly half of the 2017 deaths happened in just two sectors: transportation and construction.

Gig work can be hazardous 

More danger lurks on the horizon. The No. 1 problem is the "gig economy," the estimated 75 million American workers who now move from job to job with no permanent employment, according to the Federal Reserve.

Construction industry faces major labor shortage 01:42

That may be fine for computer techies, chefs and sales personnel. But in the trades, with roofers and electricians in short supply, it can be fatal, because people with little experience and less training end up working for small firms that hire and fire on a day's notice. Gig workers, particularly those who hire out to small firms, have several times as many accidents as workers who've stayed on the same job for years, the BLS said.

In the case of Hale and Ricks, the company they worked for failed to properly train them, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That company, a subcontractor for the firm that was actually responsible for the demolition, had also failed to do regular inspections of the scaffold, OSHA said. The fine was a nominal $23,280.

Another problem is age. The rising economy lures people into jobs they probably shouldn't be doing, said Conning's Theodorou, because they're too old, have disabilities or react more slowly. At age 58, Ricks was a senior citizen in the demolition trade.

Not enough healthy workers 

Theodorou said recent injuries in construction have a "barbell" curve: They've involved either very young workers who've been on the job less than three months or the older, more fragile and less agile workers.

There's also a shortage of healthy workers. Many companies have lowered standards to accept people who have failed or barely passed drug tests, according to Quest Diagnostics. Workplace overdoses due to alcohol and drugs have increased by 25 percent for five consecutive years ending 2017, the latest year records are available. The worst states are in the Midwest, according to US Drug Test Centers.

Obesity, a real problem when you're hanging from a scaffold or up on a roof, went up by 10 percent since 2000 to 40 percent of American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We are simply living a more sedentary lifestyle," said Theodorou.

Immigrants are now an important part of the workforce, but they face a language barrier when it comes to safety training, according to Safety+Health magazine. Another problem, noted Theodoruo, is their reluctance to report injuries until they become extreme and require hospitalization.  

Trucking companies draw recruits from unexpected source amid driver shortage 02:58

In the trucking sector, a shortage of trained drivers is forcing those who are qualified for the big rigs to drive longer and farther with less sleep. It's an "open secret among truckers," according to The New York Times. The National Survey of Long-Haul Truck Drivers Health and Injury found that more than a third of drivers interviewed admitted to nodding off or falling asleep while on the road.

Truckers are more likely to kill others, too. The drowsy Walmart driver who slammed into Tracy Morgan's limousine and killed the comedian's friend had been driving for 23 hours without sleep. Walmart and its insurers settled for an undisclosed -- but multimillion dollar -- amount.

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