Anita Irene Coester and Moses Kur were plastics industry employees in 2021 who had something in common: They showed up for a normal workday and were killed in accidents on the job.
‘Stagnant trend' in on-the-job deaths prompts calls for solutions
The details, in OSHA records, police reports and media accounts, can be sobering. Kur, 37, was responding to an error code on a machine at automotive components maker Ventra Grand Rapids 5 LLC in Michigan, when the robotic arm of a hotplate welder swung forward, pinning him.
"The employee was killed due to severe trauma to the head," according to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration report. Local news reports and police documents identified Kur.
An obituary on a funeral home website said he was survived by his wife and two children — all three were "his pride and joy" — along with other family and friends.
"He was a compassionate and well-respected leader in his Sudanese community," the obituary said.
Coester, 51, was tightening a floor bolt on a machine at polyurethane mattress maker Purple Innovations Inc. in Utah when, OSHA records said, a "conduit track caught the employee and pulled the employee against the machine floor supports and crushed … the upper body that killed the employee."
She had worked as a maintenance mechanic at the company since 2019, according to an obituary, and in her spare time taught industrial maintenance at a local technical college.
"Irene had such an unwavering commitment to her work and challenged herself every day to be the best in all aspects of her field," the obituary said, noting that survivors include her husband, four children and grandchildren. Local news reports identified her as the victim in the accident.
Preventable deaths like those are getting more attention from some safety organizations, driven by research that suggests the U.S. has not made much headway in reducing deaths at work, especially compared with more significant progress in reducing on-the-job injuries.
A 2020 report from the National Safety Council, for example, said that while workplace injury rates have dropped nearly 70 percent between 1993 and 2018, from 8.9 recordable cases per 100 employees annually to 2.8, preventable on-the-job deaths dropped by only 26 percent.
NSC launched a campaign in 2019, called Work to Zero, that aims to focus attention on the 4,500-5,000 workplace fatalities annually in the U.S.
"We've seen a pretty good drop in injury rates in the last 25 years; it's about a 67 percent drop," said Emily Whitcomb, the director of the Work to Zero program, "but we have not seen the same drop in our fatality rates."
NSC's effort focuses on bringing better technology, like sensors, drones or robots, into the workplace and redesigning jobs as ways to reduce deaths.
"At Work to Zero, we are really pushing our safety professionals to rethink how they approach addressing workplace fatalities," Whitcomb said. "Rather than making an unsafe job a little safer, can we think about completely eliminating the need for that dangerous task? Or can we eliminate the need for a human to do that very dangerous task?"
While NSC's initiative is focused on bringing in technology and redesigning jobs, others in the safety community say deaths would drop if OSHA had higher fines, stronger regulations and more inspectors.
In 2021, OSHA had about 1,720 inspectors — 755 at the federal level and 964 in specific state agencies, which is near the lowest amount since it started 50 years ago, according to the 2022 Death on the Job report from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. That's one inspector for every 81,000 workers, the union said.
"If OSHA was bigger and was able to get to more workplaces and had higher penalties, all of that might be a deterrent to basically cutting corners on OSHA standards and causing these deaths," Jordan Barab, a deputy assistant secretary of OSHA for eight years under President Barack Obama, said in an interview.
The median penalty in a worker death case was $9,750 in federal OSHA cases in 2021, while in states where the state government operated its own OSHA, the median penalty was $5,800, the AFL-CIO report said.
State OSHA agencies initially proposed fines in that range for the deaths of Kur and Coester. In Kur's case, Michigan OSHA proposed $14,000 in fines, but the company is contesting it and it remains an open case, according to agency records. Both Ventra and Michigan OSHA declined further comment.
In Utah, state OSHA officials initially proposed $10,000 in fines after Coester's death. The case was closed last year. Neither Utah OSHA nor the company responded to a request for comment.
Unions say OSHA's enforcement powers are too weak. Federal law makes any prosecutions for workplace deaths misdemeanors with a maximum of six months in jail, in contrast with stronger criminal penalties for violating environmental laws, AFL-CIO said.
OSHA referred only nine worker safety cases to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution in fiscal year 2021, compared with the Environmental Protection Agency initiating 123 criminal enforcement cases in the same 12 months, it said.
"The aggressive use of criminal penalties for enforcement of environmental laws, and the real potential for jail time for corporate officials, serve as a powerful deterrent," AFL-CIO wrote. "The criminal penalty provisions of the OSH Act are woefully inadequate."
Within the plastics processing industry, the sample size in government data may be too small to compare injury rates, which have also been falling, with the number of workplace deaths, which tend to fluctuate more. But if you look at manufacturing broadly, some data supports the NSC conclusions.
From 2009 to 2020, for example, injury and illness rates fell about 28 percent, from 4.3 recordable work-related injuries and illnesses per 100 workers each year to 3.1 cases, according to data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But workplace deaths in manufacturing plants remained basically the same, with 340 reported in 2020, compared with 319 in 2009, BLS said. The annual death total bounced around within that range for the decade.
Some observers raise notes of caution around reading too much into the falling injury rates. Barab said there's evidence that workplace injuries are undercounted, in part because they're self-reported. AFL-CIO said actual injury counts could be up to three times higher.
But at least when looking at federal data, the AFL-CIO report made a similar point to NSC: that workplace injuries and illnesses are falling faster than fatalities. Its report said the on-the-job fatality rate in the manufacturing sector was flat between 2010 and 2020, at 2.3 deaths per 100,000 workers, but the injury and illness rate fell 29 percent.
In launching the Work to Zero program, NSC said it was concerned about what it called a "stagnant trend in workplace fatalities … especially compared to the steady decrease in workplace injuries."
The workplace death that drew perhaps the highest proposed OSHA fine in plastics processing nearly $300,000, was last year at an IPL Plastics Inc. thermoforming plant in Cambridge, Ohio.
On Nov. 17, 38-year-old production manager Todd Shaffer was troubleshooting equipment and trying to clear stuck plastic parts while partially inside the machine, when its conveyor cycled automatically and he was crushed, OSHA said in a news release.
OSHA's report said that Shaffer was pinned at chest and head height for 18 minutes before emergency responders and coworkers could free him, and he lost consciousness. Paramedics on scene treated him for cardiac arrest and transported him to a hospital, where he died four days later, OSHA said. The agency said Shaffer suffered loss of oxygen and blood to his brain.
"Employee No. 1 was unresponsive to medical treatment for many days and was removed from life support and pronounced dead on Nov. 21, 2021," OSHA said.
The OSHA documents do not name Shaffer, but an official report from Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz said Shaffer died Nov. 21 from injuries suffered in a machinery accident Nov. 17 at work, and it listed the IPL factory as the location of the accident.
An obituary in a local paper said Shaffer worked as a production manager at IPL in Cambridge and is survived by his wife, three daughters and other family.
"He was truly a kid at heart and loved taking his daughters and nephews out tubing in the snow and watching cartoons with them," the obituary said. "He was a loving and caring person who always wanted to help others in need. He would donate to food drives, toy drives and would collect bottle caps to donate to the local school."
OSHA proposed fines of $291,000, noting that the factory, which is part of IPL's subsidiary Encore, had two similar near-miss incidents right before the incident that killed Shaffer, on the same production line. In both of those cases — one on the day of Shaffer's death and another two days earlier — those employees "barely escaped injuries," OSHA said.
"If Encore Industries Inc., operating as Encore Plastics Corp./IPL Global, had remedied failures that contributed to the incident, the company could have prevented the tragedy," OSHA said.
Executives at the Cambridge plant and at IPL's headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, did not return requests for comment.
OSHA faulted the company's safety procedures and noted that a 2020 investigation at the same plant cited it for lockout/tag-out violations.
"Our investigation found Encore Industries removed jams and performed other service and maintenance tasks with the knowledge that its inadequate and failing lockout/tag-out procedures exposed its workers to the risks associated with moving machine parts," said OSHA Area Director Larry Johnson. "By doing so, Encore Industries failed to prevent this terrible tragedy and the avoidable loss of a family member and co-worker."
OSHA documents show the company is contesting the fines. An agency spokesperson declined further comment.
Some safety advocates say companies should focus specifically on identifying fatality risks, and they point to new Industry 4.0-like technology to help gather data to do that.
The National Safety Council, for example, recently released a safety innovation toolkit as part of its Work to Zero initiative that includes strategies and guidance on deploying technology and investment calculators.
"We developed a set of resources to help companies identify where their fatality risks are [and] what technology solutions are readily available on the market to mitigate or eliminate that fatality risk," Whitcomb said. "The intent is to help make innovation more accessible for companies."
That could include technology such as having drones conduct video inspections at heights where workers would have fall risks, as well as deploying wearable technology to monitor employee fatigue or having robots or cobots replace workers in dangerous tasks, she said.
"Technology is coming fast and furious and most companies will need to innovate on their safety controls," Whitcomb said. "But it can very difficult, especially for small- and medium-sized companies that don't have the internal capacity to adopt new technologies or the resources to go out and hire consultants.
"We help them make the business case for innovating," she said. "This is really just a way to sell innovation to the leadership."
One company that makes wearable monitors, MakuSafe in Des Moines, Iowa, said the devices collect factory floor data in real time and allow for more predictive analysis, including for near-miss incidents before they cause injuries or fatalities.
One set of customer trials across several states, for example, collected 15 million data points and identified 300,000 actions "outside the norm," which in turn resulted in the companies discovering several dozen near-miss incidents, said Tom West, MakuSafe's vice president of marketing.
Those customers conservatively estimated that it saved them, in total, at least $600,000 in avoided costs from potential accidents, West said in remarks during a June online presentation from an American Society of Safety Professionals conference in Chicago.
Such data can help companies take a more forward-looking approach to safety, he said.
"We have to move away from this lagging indicator mentality, just tracking things that have happened, to more of a leading indicator approach," he said. "The holy grail of keeping people safe may be getting more near misses reported."
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