In early 2014, North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry had some good news to share: Workplace deaths dropped significantly, with only 23 people having died in accidents on the job in the past year.
It was the smallest annual toll since Berry took office in 2001.
That count, though, captured only a sliver of the tragedies that met workers on the job, a News & Observer investigation shows. The state Department of Labor left out more than 80 fathers, brothers, daughters and neighbors who died while trying to make a living. They were farmers, mechanics, janitors, roofers and painters killed or fatally injured by an unexpected hazard at work.
Dozens of North Carolina workers die each year with little or no notice from state officials. No inspector asks questions, no one demands reform, no one pays a fine. Often, that is because of narrow state and federal laws that prohibit state investigation.
Sometimes, though, labor investigators retreat after heeding an employer’s argument that workplace safety laws don’t apply.
Either way, if the department doesn’t inspect the accident scene, it doesn’t include it in the state’s annual count of on-the-job deaths, keeping the number artificially low. It excludes people such as Michael Doyle Welch.
For 40 years, Welch had been a hard-working roofer with a penchant for under-charging his customers. In the two years since a stroke had impaired his balance, he’d begun talking about retirement. But the work kept coming.
On November 29, 2012, the 64-year-old Huntersville resident headed to another job: a high-roofed house in Cornelius. That afternoon, his wife, Shirley, says, he lost his balance. He slid off the roof and plummeted to a flower bed, some 20 feet below.
Emergency workers tried to revive him, but didn’t succeed. Welch wasn’t wearing a protective harness at the time.
North Carolina OSHA started to investigate, but determined his death was not in its jurisdiction because Welch was the sole owner of his roofing business, state records show. Investigators don’t have the authority to inspect work fatalities when the worker was self-employed.
Welch was not listed among the 35 workers state labor officials included in their annual press release of workplace fatalities in 2012. His widow thinks that’s not right.
Her husband was a church deacon, a diehard Tar Heels fan, a devoted uncle and a conscientious tradesman who often charged people just $45 to repair their roofs.
“He was a good Christian man who believed in doing people right,” Shirley said. “… He’s just as important as anybody else.”
Welch worked in “one of the most dangerous jobs around,” she said. She questions why he and many others who die on the job don’t wind up on the annual counts that officials share with the public. A more accurate count could make a difference for other workers, she said.
“It would make people take a second look before taking a job like that,” she said. “…Others might take more safety precautions.”
Another factor keeps the department’s annual public tally low: Before 2006, the Department of Labor reported to the public all work-related deaths annually, regardless of whether it had authority to investigate, according to a review of releases and media reports during the tenure of Berry, a Republican.
Since then, Berry’s department reported only those deaths in which inspectors had the power to levy fines. The N&O was unable to find any public announcement of the change other than a sentence in a 2006 news release that said the report was based on fatalities the department investigates.
The state is unusual in the way it reports deaths. Of the 25 or so states that run their own safety and health program, only two others, Michigan and Oregon, provide statistics about only the cases they investigate. Those states, unlike North Carolina, made clear in its releases and reports that those deaths represented only a small segment of workers killed on the job.
“It seems they have a very narrow view,” said Charles Jeffress, former director of the state Occupational Safety and Health Division who went on to head the federal safety program at the U.S. Department of Labor. “I don’t think it’s the right way to inform the public. ... It’s misleading to report only on those (deaths).”
State labor officials defend the practice, saying it’s not meant to mislead the public. Department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said she makes it a point to explain the limits of their numbers if a reporter inquires after receiving a news release. If citizens want a fuller picture, she said, they can inquire with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which receives the larger list from the state.
“The reason why we think it’s important for those in our coverage is those are the ones we can have an impact on,” said Kevin Beauregard, assistant deputy commissioner for the Occupational Safety and Health Division at the state Department of Labor.
James Andrews, president of the North Carolina chapter of the AFL-CIO and a member of the state OSHA advisory council, remembers seeing workplace fatality numbers drop significantly several years ago. Andrews remembered being proud, thinking the decline was a reflection of the agency’s training and education efforts.
When hearing how the numbers reflected a change in reporting methods, Andrews was surprised and disappointed.
“I thought we had something to celebrate,” he said. “This, though, seems to paint a false picture of where we are.”
Berry declined to be interviewed. She provided a written statement that reinforced the points that Beauregard had made in an interview.
Reporting fewer deaths
The state Department of Labor has a big role in keeping North Carolina workers safe. It fields complaints about unsafe practices, and to try to stop problems before they begin, investigators perform random, unannounced inspections of companies in particularly dangerous industries. In recent years, investigators performed more than 4,000 health and safety inspections annually, according to department reports.
The federal government tasks the agency with investigating, studying and keeping accurate counts of workplace deaths. And when a worker dies because an employer didn’t address an unsafe condition, investigators can levy fines. Each year, death investigations are supposed to teach some lessons: What can we do better to keep workers safe?
A spike in falls from scaffolding – such as the accident that killed three workers in Raleigh last month – might prompt Berry’s department to focus on harness gear at training seminars. A rash of heat strokes might inspire a series of public service announcements in rural farming communities.
The tally the state reports to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics is quite extensive. It includes employees killed in car crashes while working, workers gunned down at work and federal employees whose deaths were investigated by federal authorities. It also lists accidents at small farms and fatalities involving self-employed workers.
For years, North Carolina labor commissioners, including Berry, reported all of those deaths to the public each year.
But, in 2006, after Berry’s first term, her agency switched reporting methods. It decided to report only the deaths it had the responsibility to investigate. Quesenberry, the spokeswoman, said the agency changed its strategy, in part, to report and provide information about fatalities quickly, instead of waiting for the federal government to approve the final numbers the following year, sometimes as long as a nine-month wait.
But the news releases – and many of the media stories – don’t clearly explain the scope of the state’s death tally.
The department’s statements offer totals for “fatal work accidents” or “workplace fatalities.” A 2009 press release notes that “North Carolina employers and employees have made great strides over the past eight years and their efforts have helped put North Carolina on the map as one of the safest states in which to work.” In that release, the agency reported 56 fatalities.
In 2001, the Department of Labor announced 234 workplace deaths, a count that included all deaths it tracked for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A corresponding count for 2008 deaths would have been 161; generally, the number of workplace deaths reported to the federal government has been dropping since 2000.
Berry’s tallies now leave out self-employed workers, laborers at small farms, owners of unincorporated companies, those who die in the open waters surrounding North Carolina and many workers whose deaths come months or years after the injury that eventually kills them.
Over the last four years, for example, Berry’s count left out a farmhand who fell into a grain bin, a highway patrolman struck by a vehicle he was trying to stop with a speed stick and a painter who fell off scaffolding.
A few others were left off year-end counts unintentionally, Beauregard said. Those included Dannie Burrell and Tony Leon Wright, state Department of Transportation workers hit and killed by a driver while working on a road crew in Cherokee County in 2012. The agency also failed to include the case of Thomas Victor Reid, who died after falling while working for the Pasquotank Sanitation Department.
“In those three instances, it would have been our intention to put them in (our report),” Beauregard said. “A supervisor made a call. Going back and looking at that, I think they should have been on there.”
Database manager David Raynor, news researcher Peggy Neal and Charlotte Observer reporter Ames Alexander contributed.
What’s not included
Each year, the North Carolina Department of Labor releases a count of work-related deaths. These only include on-the-job fatalities that investigators believed they had the authority to investigate. These numbers don’t include:
▪ Fatalities of employees at farms with fewer then 10 employees and no housing for migratory labor. Congress prohibits investigations in those circumstances.
▪ Self-employed people with unincorporated companies, even those with employees who may have been exposed to the fatal work-site hazard. This, too, is limited by federal law.
▪ Workers who die on military bases or while working for any federal agency or on a federal facility. Federal occupational safety and health investigators handle these cases; therefore, they are not counted by state investigators.
▪ Workers who take months or years to succumb to the on-the-job injury that had not been initially reported to state investigators. State laws prohibit investigators from issuing citations against employers more than six months after the situation leading to the injury or accident occurred. While safety compliance officers could investigate, they don’t because they have no ability to levy fines if they see a problem.
▪ Law enforcement officers whose deaths were caused by criminal acts. Though DOL investigators have authority over the health and safety of officers, they don’t inspect cases caused by someone breaking the law.
▪ Laborers working in the mining industry. Even if their deaths were not in the mines, federal investigators have authority to inspect, not those from the state.
▪ The deaths of anyone who dies while working on or around open waters, including professional fishermen and divers. Federal law prohibits state investigation of these deaths.
▪ Unforeseen acts of violence. If a boss had no reason to suspect or believe his employees faced a threat of violence, state inspectors wouldn’t investigate the incident.
▪ Most workers who die on the roads. Employees killed in a motor vehicle crash while working aren’t covered under the state’s occupational safety and health laws.
Five not counted
Here are five examples of on-the-job deaths in the past five years that state workplace investigators decided not to investigate. They also were left out of the state’s annual count that is released to the public:
▪ Miguel Ortiz died from suffocation when the bait shop storage shed where his boss stored worms collapsed on him and several other workers. After an occupational safety investigator arrived at the Haywood County bait shop in July 2012, he decided the business was a worm farm and retreated. Farms with fewer than 10 employees are given a reprieve from state and federal safety laws. The business’ current industry code lists it as a retail business, not a farm.
▪ Gene Tinsley Austin stepped on a sharp object in January 2013 while cleaning Wake Forest University’s historic Reynolda House. Days later, he died of sepsis when his foot infection spread. State investigators closed the case after they couldn’t definitively conclude he injured himself at work.
▪ Donald Lee Fritsch died in 2014 after falling off a ladder while installing cable at a residence in Caldwell County. Because the cable company treated Fritsch as an independent contractor, the state didn’t investigate or include Fritsch in its work-related deaths that year. For years, courts in the state and across the nation have often ruled that cable companies are improperly classifying installers as contractors.
▪ Randall Shaw Thomas was thrown from a horse in 2009 while training as a member of the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office mounted unit. He was immediately paralyzed and died from his injuries three years later. His death occurred well beyond the six-month statute of limitations the department has to levy workplace safety fines against an employer, so investigators didn’t look into the matter further.
▪ Harold Franklin Shouse died while operating a forklift and installing a prefabricated log home. Shouse, owner of the log-home business, had been relieving an employee on the equipment. Because Shouse was the owner of the company, investigators didn’t inspect the accident scene.