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A death at work affects us all

Most of us have experienced a death in the family. We can't help it; it is the conclusion of life and is inevitable for each of us. The tragedy occurs when someone passes from our lives well before their time.

In addition to our families at home, most of us have families at work. They work next to us, or we supervise them. In an era of working longer hours we may see our work families more than our home families.

Too many work families in Oregon this year have had members die on the job. Last year, Oregon celebrated the lowest number of workplace fatalities to date (there were 34 deaths covered by workers' compensation in 2001). We will not have good news to report for this year. Deaths this year will exceed last year's record low number (as of Oct. 1, there were already 33 deaths). People are losing their lives in a variety of ways: vehicle collisions, being struck by an object, explosions, being pulled into machinery É the list seems endless.

Analysts with Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, or Oregon OSHA, are examining data for factors that may indicate a pattern in the deaths; however, nothing that we have found in preliminary analysis supports a trend. We have found an unusual number of heart attacks claiming the lives of workers in 2002. Are we under so much stress, or in such poor health, that we are literally dropping dead at our desks?

Fatalities are expensive. They cost employers thousands of dollars in investigative expenses, increased insurance, litigation and numerous hidden ways that distract us from doing business. But the 'soft costs' of grieving time for surviving co-workers, the lost productivity as workers cope with long-term scars, are beyond calculation.

I have yet to visit a work site that is the same after a workplace death. It affects workers every day, every time they have to walk past a piece of machinery that brought their friend down or when they see a familiar work shirt still hanging on a peg. The company softball team is missing a shortstop, and you see co-workers' eyes well up when they recall a joke that the departed told the crew so many times before. There is the awkward silence when you realize there's one handout too many at the company meeting. A death has occurred in the family.

The best way to guard against losses is to prevent them. We need to change the climate in Oregon from taking a passive approach to safety and health on the job to making it a top priority. This year, deaths have occurred in a broad range of industries, from offices to production floors, to mills and forested hillsides. Nobody is immune.

Raise the awareness among the people you work with. Take advantage of the consultation and training services offered by Oregon OSHA. We will have a safety consultant evaluate your work site at no cost and make recommendations on how to improve your safety and health program, reduce hazards and even increase employee satisfaction and performance on their job. Finally, we need insight from you. Tell Oregon OSHA what you are seeing on the front line of the new Oregon economy, and how we can assist you. Call us, 1-800-922-2689.

My condolences if you have experienced a death in your family at work. Let's spare as many people as possible the loss of a member of Oregon's valued work force.

Peter De Luca is the administrator of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, based in Salem. He lives in Salem.