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Opinion: Almost never is a workplace death unpreventable

OSHA’s Colorado administrator: 2021 was an especially deadly year on the job, often because safety measures were ignored

While the nation, and Coloradans, continue to recover from the unprecedented social and economic impacts of this horrible pandemic, we must not lose sight of another killer which, when ignored, claims the lives of our family members, friends and neighbors:

Jennifer S. Rous

Workplace fatalities.

In 2021, 46 Colorado workers in businesses under the jurisdiction of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration left home for their jobs and never returned. That number was up significantly from the previous year, when 27 workers were killed. Over the past five years (2017-2021), 26 workers on average died in Colorado each year.

The circumstances of their deaths vary. Often, they were people who worked in construction or related activities. Over those same five years, 20 individuals died from being crushed and another 18 perished after being struck by equipment. Some died in falls. Seven workers had trenches collapse around them.

There were workers whose exposure to Covid-19 at work took their lives. Equally tragic, people sometimes fell victim to workplace violence.

For the family, friends and the communities left behind, this past holiday season was less joyous, their memories stained by this sudden and needless loss.  The impact is felt immediately, but also will reverberate far into the future.

OSHA exists to investigate many of these incidents to learn if an employer followed required safety and health standards. No citation or fine can return a life, but understanding how tragedies happen and how to keep workplaces safe are keys to saving the lives of others.

Workers have a right to a workplace free from recognized hazards. While the employer is required to mitigate and control the hazards, workers also should educate themselves on the hazards they face in their specific workplace.

Ask for the employer’s safety and health plan. Ask for the training; understand the procedures; use the personal protective equipment provided. Do you know when a safety harness is required and how to properly wear it? If there is moving equipment, are there procedures to protect individuals from being struck? 

Workers with complaints should never fear reporting a safety and health concern. Federal law protects those who report violations of OSHA standards as a protected right, and holds employers who retaliate against them legally accountable under OSHA’s whistleblower laws.

As the new regional administrator for OSHA’s Region 8 – which includes Colorado – my concern about workplace deaths and injuries runs deep. Lives could be saved and injuries minimized if employers act responsibly and commit to making safety an absolute priority in their workplace.

OSHA believes there is no such thing as an unpreventable workplace accident. With proper care, planning and detailed focus on prevention, workers should end each workday safely. OSHA investigations find that fatalities and serious injuries occur when a series of missteps combine, often when an employer fails to ensure it has complied with regulations and has followed required procedures.

Workers reading this should feel empowered to say something if they have a safety concern. Employers should reflect on the impacts that workplace deaths and serious injuries have on the workers and their families, on their co-workers, and the impact to the company’s bottom line. In every way, the costs are tremendous.

This is a time to look forward and imagine a better new year. Workers and employers alike should commit to one another to do the right thing and to do their best to ensure a safe workplace.

Take steps now to make 2022 and beyond as safe as they can be. Get involved with, or contact trade groups or other business organizations for best workplace safety practices. Take advantage of the enormous amount of free information available for employees and employers at www.osha.gov to learn more why safety is so important.


 Jennifer Rous is administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Region 8, which includes Colorado.


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