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Risks 631 - 16 November 2013


Asbestos - the hidden killer Hazards magazine Hazards at Work

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EditorRory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at






Unite demands access to site after death

A major construction firm had refused the union Unite access to a London construction site where a worker died last week, denying workers essential safety support. On 6 November labourer Richard Laco, 31, died when a concrete stairwell fell on him at the Laing O'Rourke construction site for the new Francis Crick Institute near Kings Cross. The tragedy prompted Unite to repeat its call on the firm and its subsidiary Crown House to allow the union access to its sites. Numerous requests prior to the death had been refused. Unite assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail said: “This fatality is a tragedy and our condolences go out to the bereaved family and friends.” She added: “Trade unions have a role to play in maintaining safe working environments but Laing O'Rourke has bizarrely banned Unite officials from their sites. There is no place for anti-trade union behaviour in an industry where we should be working together in the interests of safety. We urge Laing O'Rourke and its subsidiary Crown House to give Unite access to the sites to support workers and help make improvements where necessary.” Work on the site restarted on 11 November. A spokesperson from Laing O’Rourke, the lead contractor on the project, said: “While investigations are continuing, it would be inappropriate to comment further or speculate as to the cause.”

Workers target blacklister Laing O’Rourke

Protesters targeted a Liverpool building project run by Laing O'Rourke on 9 November following a tragic death on one of the construction giant’s London projects. Members of the union-backed Blacklist Support Group (BSG) said they were outraged at the company’s refusal to allow the union access to its projects, including the site of the Francis Crick Institute in London where the death occurred. The demonstration took place outside Laing O’Rourke’s multimillion-pound Alder Hey Hospital site in Liverpool. The construction unions Unite, UCATT and GMB all had members at the protest. The firm is one of those named in a blacklisting scandal targeting union and safety activists. Laing and seven other big construction contractors are due in court on 29 November after using the 3,200-name list compiled by illegal blacklister The Consulting Association to keep individuals off its projects. The London fatality is one of several deadly incidents at Laing projects. The Morning Star reports the firm paid out £150,000 in fines in 2009 following the death of Matthew Gilbert and a serious injury to Parminder Singh, who were hit by a falling concrete slab at Heathrow. A separate £135,000 fine followed criminal safety breaches that saw steelworker Kieron Deeney plunge 10 metres to his death in east London (Risks 294). The TUC is organising a national day of action on 20 November calling on blacklisting firms to “own up, pay up and clean up”. The 'Cheesegrater' building under construction in central London, another Laing O'Rourke site, is among those in the capital to be targeted. Unions want a Leveson-style inquiry into the scandal.

London mayor ignores site safety call

London mayor Boris Johnson has ignored union calls for action to address a sharp rise in site deaths in the capital. Construction union UCATT approached the mayor after latest official statistics revealed construction deaths in London doubled from four in 2011/12 to 8 last year. After the statistics were release on 31 October, UCATT’s London region secretary wrote to Mr Johnson seeking a meeting to discuss construction safety. The union also wanted his support in ensuring that all future public sector construction contracts in London use directly employed workers and that private sector projects are encouraged to use the same employment model. The letter did not receive a reply. “The Mayor’s refusal to even acknowledge our legitimate safety concerns demonstrates a complete lack of leadership or a concern for the safety of London construction workers,” Jerry Swain said, adding there is clear evidence that sites are safer where workers are directly employed rather than self-employed. “These sites are better organised, safety levels are higher and you are more likely to see independent safety reps who dramatically improve safety,” he said. The union says the advantages of direct employment was demonstrated in building work for the Olympics. It says the London games were the first ever Olympics built without a single construction death and accident rates were far lower than industry averages. UCATT is concerned that as the construction industry comes out of recession deaths and injuries are likely to increase.

Retail staff attack violence on the High Street

Retail union Usdaw has taken its campaign against violence to shopworkers to the streets. The union’s ‘Respect for Shopworkers Week’ ran from 11-15 November under the slogan 'abuse is not a part of a shopworker’s job'. Marking the start of the campaign, Usdaw general secretary John Hannett revealed the union’s survey had found 1 in 6 shopworkers who had been subjected to a violent attack had not reported the incident to to either their manager or the police. He said: “It is very worrying that 1 in 6 shopworkers who have been physically assaulted did not report the incident to their employer or the police. We are shocked that so many are suffering in silence and I would urge shopworkers to report all incidents, to give us and the employers the chance to sort the problem.” He added: “We are seeking a change in the law to provide for stiffer sentences for those who assault workers serving the public. There is a real need to address the scourge of violence against workers. This proposal would make it clear to potential assailants that attacking shopworkers is totally unacceptable and reassure retail staff that reporting incidents will result in proper punishment for the offender. Our message is very clear: Abuse and physical attacks are not part of a shopworker’s job!”

Attacks may force health workers to quit the NHS

Cutbacks and violence at work have led many healthcare workers to consider leaving the NHS, a UNISON survey of 2,000 healthcare assistants has revealed. The union found cuts in staffing levels and insufficient training, coupled with continuing reports of violence against staff, were behind the collapse of morale. It said a “staggering” 85 per cent of respondents said they have seen or experienced verbal abuse, with 20 per cent revealing they have been exposed to physical violence at work. Over threequarters of respondents (78 per cent) reported staffing levels have dropped over the past year. UNISON head of nursing, Gail Adams, said: “This survey illustrates the sometimes grim reality for healthcare assistants, assistant practitioners and care support workers, whose already challenging job is made harder by decreasing staffing levels and the threat of aggression and violence.” More than 40 per cent of respondents admitting they had considered leaving their profession either fairly or very seriously over the past year. Calling for urgent investment in staff, training and development, Gail Adams said: “When four in ten health care assistants are considering leaving the profession, something is very wrong. This survey is demonstrating the real impact of government cuts – demoralised staff who are trying to deliver the best possible care they can in ever more difficult circumstances. Cuts aren’t working, and if these vital professionals are depleted even more, the impact on patient care will be enormous.”

Sellafield leg amputee worker awarded settlement

A Unite member has been awarded a seven figure cash settlement after an incident at a nuclear plant in Cumbria led to part of his leg being amputated. Mechanical fitter Kenneth Brown, from Workington, was employed by a contractor at the Sellafield site when he was hit by a cherry picker in May 2011. He sustained extensive crush injuries and had to have his left leg amputated above the knee. The 64-year-old was working for Johnson Controls Ltd, which admitted failing to ensure the safety of its employees. The firm claimed Mr Brown was "partly to blame" for the incident, but agreed to award him damages. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation pointed the finger at the firm, however. It found that Johnson Controls was guilty of a number of criminal health and safety offences, and issued a legally-binding improvement notice. The investigation found that the only advice the company gave to its employees when directing cherry pickers – the job Mr Brown was doing when he was injured - was to wear a high visibility waistcoat. No specific training was provided. Unite regional secretary Mick Whitley said: “Mr Brown has suffered horrific injuries because his employer ignored fundamental health and safety procedures. It is completely unacceptable for an employer to shirk responsibility and try to blame the injured worker in any case. But it is staggering that Johnson Controls Ltd would use such a cynical tactic to try and cut their compensation bill considering the life changing injuries he suffered as result of its negligence.” He said because the claim was backed by the union, “Kenneth was able to receive expert legal advice and keep 100 per cent of his damages – despite government changes to the way personal injury claims are funded.”


Tug owner fined £1.7m over Clyde deaths

The owner of a tug boat that sank in the River Clyde killing three crew members has been fined £1.7m. Stephen Humphreys, 33, Eric Blackley, 57, and Robert Cameron, 65, died when the Flying Phantom capsized in thick fog opposite Clydebank College in West Dunbartonshire on 19 December 2007. Only crewman Brian Aitchison, 37, survived, after he managed to escape from the tug's wheelhouse. Tug owner Svitzer Marine admitted failing to put in place a safe operating procedure after a previous grounding in December 2000. The Greenock-based Flying Phantom had been towing the 77,000-ton Red Jasmine cargo ship when the capsize occurred. The High Court in Edinburgh heard how difficulties were encountered due to heavy fog on the River Clyde. The court heard that the Flying Phantom suffered £150,000 of damage when a vessel it was towing on the Clyde in 2000 collided with the tug in similar circumstances. An earlier Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) inquiry found that in the deadly December 2007 incident the boat's towing winch had not released quickly enough, which meant the tug was capsized by the vessel it was pulling. The report also highlighted failings in procedure to ensure the tug operated safely in foggy weather. The Danish company’s QC said that what happened was an “appalling tragedy” and that Svitzer's remorse was “deep and genuine.” Port operator Clydeport Operations Limited is also being prosecuted over the incident. A hearing will take place in Edinburgh in December. Unite has previously called for Clydeport to face culpable homicide charges (Risks 376).

Government has inflated the fit for work figures

The government inflated estimates of people on a disability benefit subsequently found to be ‘fit for work’, a Labour MP has said, suggesting cases are much more widespread than is actually the case. Work and pensions select committee member Sheila Gilmore MP said she has received an admission from employment minister Esther McVey that the official figures are “not clear” and had secured a promise to “ensure greater clarity in future”. The Labour MP for Edinburgh East queried the government figures on 27 September. She said the response this month from the minister conceded that the government had effectively inflated the numbers found to be fit for work while receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This was because only fit for work assessments overturned through a formal tribunal process were removed from the headline figures. Cases overturned in an informal “reconsideration” process used prior to these formal appeals were still lumped in with the ‘fit for work’ group. Sheila Gilmore said: “Up to now we thought that the assessment was getting about 1-in-10 fit for work decisions wrong – far too many in most people’s eyes – but now we know the government have been fiddling the figures, the reality could be much, much worse.”  She added: “It now turns out that informal appeals to officials – as opposed to formal ones to judges – were being taken into account. This has clearly masked the true extent of the failings in the ESA assessment process,” noting that the revelations suggest “that rather than trying to fix the test to reduce the number of incorrect decisions, ministers’ priority is to fix the figures to downplay the extent of the problem.” Fit for work figures, normally the subject of a high profile government news release, were omitted from the latest quarterly government statistics, published in October. The real figures show the overwhelming majority of ESA recipients are genuinely not fit for work due to ill-health or disability.

Childhood asbestos exposure blamed for cancer

A 61-year-old Wigan woman diagnosed with a deadly asbestos cancer decades after being exposed to the dust has successfully recovered over £70,000 compensation from the Turner & Newall Asbestos Trust. The woman, who lived only 500 yards from the Turner Brothers asbestos factory in Hindley Green as a child in the 1950s and 60s, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable asbestos-related cancer, in the autumn of 2012. The former resident of Hindley Green, whose name has not been released, received the damages from a compensation fund set up after the company went into administration in 2001. She said: “This illness has completely shattered my life. Growing up next to the Hindley Green Turner Brothers factory all those years ago caused my cancer. I had always been busy, fit and active. This has been an extremely distressing time for myself and my family.” Steven Dickens from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm that acted for the woman, said: “Many people diagnosed with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos decades ago while at work and this caused their condition. But in this case the mesothelioma was caused by the Turner Brothers factory polluting the local environment. We believe this is the first successful mesothelioma claim to the Turner & Newall Trust for an environmental exposure case relating to the factory at Hindley Green.” Turner and Newall has already made a number of payouts to people who lived around its factory in Armley, Leeds. This followed the landmark case of June Hancock, who won a payout in 1995. She died from mesothelioma on 19 July 1997.

Suspected benzene cancer victim seeks justice

A former fitter who has been diagnosed with a blood cancer is appealing for former colleagues to come forward to help with an investigation into the dangerous chemicals he was exposed to at work. Michael Fernay, 65, from Shevington, Wigan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a cancer of the blood cells, during March this year. He now needs a blood transfusion around every two weeks. He believes the illness was caused by exposure to benzene, a known carcinogen linked to blood cancers, whilst working as a fitter. Michael worked for British Glue & Chemicals at their Appley Bridge site in Wigan between 1964 to1973. It is during this employment Michael believes he came into contact with benzene, when he worked in what had previously been the benzene plant. He recalls being asked to remove pipe work on several occasions from the benzene plant for it to be used elsewhere in the factory. “I remember the pipework I worked on being covered in benzene residue,” he said. “Sometimes there was still benzene fluid in the pipes I was removing which spilt onto my overalls and hands. During my time working at the plant I don’t remember ever being supplied with protective clothing or given warnings about coming into contact with benzene.”  He is no longer able to work because of the high risk of contracting further illness and infection, placing a huge financial burden on the family. He is being represented by Katrina London of law firm Irwin Mitchell. “Michael’s exposure to the chemical benzene could be the cause of his painful and life limiting disease,” she said. “Exposure to benzene was known to be dangerous when Michael was employed by British Glues and Chemicals and not providing Michael with the relevant protection is simply unacceptable. We would urge anyone who may have worked for British Glue & Chemicals during the mid-60s to the mid-70s at the Appleby site, to come forward with further information about the working conditions that Mr Fernay faced.” British Glue & Chemicals was acquired by Croda International in 1968.

Garment tragedies prompt ethical 'Kitemark' proposal

MPs are calling for a study into the possibility of an ethical "kitemark" for garments to help raise standards at overseas factories in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. In a report launched this week, the all-party parliamentary group for Bangladesh said there was a high chance of another tragic event like Rana Plaza, where more than 1,100 people died, or the Tazreen fire, which killed more than 100. MPs also called for regulation of ethical audits, which monitor safety and conditions in factories for brands and retailers, and said there should be a legal requirement that any problems they discover should be revealed to workers' representatives. The MPs' report, which comes after a lengthy investigation including a trip to Bangladesh by four MPs led by the group's Conservative chair, Anne Main, concludes that poor planning and building controls have resulted in substandard construction, with 90 per cent of buildings failing to meet any building codes. This meant there is high chance of a repeat of the tragic events of Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion's fire, they said. These risks compromise the long-term investments of brands and limit their ability to improve working conditions,” the report noted. Global unions have already brokered a highly successful Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, underpinning safety and employment rights. Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, the global union for the garment sector, said: “The 109 brands and retailers to have signed the historic Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh with IndustriALL and UNI all commit to staying in the country for the long term. The Accord brands constitute a critical mass of the industry in the country and their commitments through the Accord will both raise standards and protect jobs. We want the garment industry to stay in Bangladesh, but with safe and sustainable jobs and living wages.”

Road firm in court after motorcyclist is paralysed

A Wolverhampton-based road maintenance firm has been fined for serious criminal failings after a motorcyclist suffered devastating injuries and was left paralysed in a collision with traffic signs. Glynn Turner, 47, was riding his motorcycle south on the A12 on the evening of 7 June 2010 when he collided with the traffic signs at a road closure at the junction with the B1121, near Benhall, Saxmundham. The father of three, who used the bike to commute to his job at Sizewell, sustained multiple injuries. He is now unable to move any part of his body, is unable to communicate, and needs 24-hour residential care. His family have been told there is no prospect of a recovery. Carillion AM Government Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for criminal safety breaches following an investigation into the incident. HSE found that the first indication of roadworks was less than 200 metres before the road closure on this 50 mph stretch of the A12. Ipswich Crown Court heard the ‘roadworks ahead’ signs should have been erected at intervals of around 800, 400 and 200 metres in advance of the closure, and information signs alerting road users should have also been placed at up to one kilometre in advance. However HSE found that at the time, the first indication of the road closure was just 175 metres before it happened where a large yellow information board had been place. This left little time for traffic to slow down and avoid a collision. Carillion AM Government Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £180,000 and ordered to pay £28,551 in costs. HSE inspector Sandy Carmichael said: “This was a tragic incident that was utterly life-changing, not just for Mr Turner but also for his wife and family. He was an experienced driver who travelled that route regularly between his home in Ipswich and his work in Sizewell.”

Sweep injured in fall from chimney

A Clackmannanshire firm has been fined for criminal safety failings after a chimney sweep fell from the chimney stack of a two storey house in Falkirk. Dylan Skelhorn, 32, was employed by D Henderson Chimney Specialists and Roofers Limited when the incident occurred on 20 June 2011. Mr Skelhorn had been sweeping the chimney from the top of the chimney stack when he fell, sliding down the pitched roof of the property before falling five metres to the neighbouring garden below. He fractured two ribs, suffered a collapsed lung and fractured his pelvis, requiring a five day stay in hospital and ongoing physiotherapy and pain relief. He has been unable to return to work, still suffers chronic pain and needs to use crutches. The company was prosecuted after a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that no precautions had been taken by the company to prevent Mr Skelhorn from falling from the roof. The company also fell short on risk assessments and training. D Henderson Chimney Specialists and Roofers Ltd was fined £20,000 after pleading guilty to two criminal safety offences. HSE inspector Kerry Elliot, said: “If it is not possible to avoid working at height then employers must ensure that they provide employees with the necessary equipment to keep them safe. Mr Skelhorn wasn’t provided with any equipment to prevent fall or injury and is still suffering from the effects of his injuries two years later.”

Building worker suffers fractured skull and ribs

A North Yorkshire-based construction company has admitted its criminal safety failings led to one of its employees suffering a fractured skull and eight broken ribs in a four-metre fall. The 50 year-old construction worker, from Masham, was using a saw to cut through steel sheets of a mezzanine floor when he started to unbalance. He threw the saw through a hole in the metal framework and then fell himself, hitting the concrete floor below. The incident on 7 August 2012 was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted Ripley-based HACS Construction Ltd at Leeds Magistrates’ Court. The court heard the firm had been contracted to lower the mezzanine floor it had previously installed. The injured worker and a colleague were removing steel sheeting, dropping the cut metal to the floor below. At one point as a steel sheet fell, the employee felt his boot getting closer to an open edge, looked through the hole he had created and panicked. He threw the saw through the hole and then fell himself. He has since been able to return to work. HSE found the HACS Construction Ltd had not put any precautions in place to prevent falls from the mezzanine level during the work. The safety harnesses they had provided to the two workers were unsuitable and neither had been given training in how to use them. HSE said the company had considered the use of a ‘crash deck’ – a safe working platform – at the outset of the work. However, a decision was made not to proceed to save time. HACS Construction Ltd was fined £16,000 and ordered to pay £7,847 towards costs after admitting two criminal breaches of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. HSE statistics show that 40 workers were killed and more than 3,400 were seriously injured in falls from height in 2011/12.


US issues safety guidance on nano work

The US government’s workplace safety research arm has issued new recommendations on controlling worker exposures to engineered nanomaterials during their manufacture and industrial use. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommendations are based on technologies now applied in the industries using nanomaterials, and on control methods it says have been shown to be effective in reducing occupational exposures in other industries. NIOSH says engineering controls are favoured over administrative controls and personal protective equipment for lowering worker exposures, because they are designed to remove the hazard at the source, before it comes into contact with the worker. The consumer products market currently has more than 1,000 nanomaterial-containing products including makeup, sunscreen, food storage products, appliances, clothing, electronics, computers, sporting goods, and coatings. The NIOSH guide says as more nanomaterials are introduced into the workplace and nano-enabled products enter the market, it is essential that producers and users of engineered nanomaterials ensure a safe and healthy work environment.


Australia: Workers are becoming more stressed

Workplace stress is on the rise in Australia, according to a new survey, with three in four workers saying it is affecting their health. More than 1,500 people took part in the survey commissioned by the Australian Psychological Society (APS). Professor Lyn Littlefield from the APS says there has been a continuous decline in workplace wellbeing since the surveys began two years ago. “If stress isn't identified and adequately managed in the workplace, it can greatly impact overall workplace productivity and the long-term health of employees,” she said. “It is concerning that levels of stress are going up, while levels of satisfaction and workplace wellbeing are going down.” The lowest levels of wellbeing were reported in the survey by Australians aged between 18 and 25. The age group was also identified as having the highest levels of depressive symptoms. The survey also showed that those aged between 18 and 35 were more concerned about being able to pay for essential needs because of uncertainty about the future availability of work. Professor Littlefield said the survey provides insights into factors which reduce stress in the workplace. She says factors identified by those who had the highest levels of wellbeing and lowest levels of stress include feeling supported at work and receiving adequate feedback and recognition. “This data can help businesses identify actions that will lead to a positive change,” she said.

Australia: Unions want action on workplace violence

Up to one in four people will suffer violence in Australian workplaces during the course of their career, with the direct cost running to millions of dollars a year. The national union federation ACTU believes employers are not doing enough to prevent these violent incidents in the workplace. Figures compiled by the ACTU show more than 2,000 serious injury workers' compensation claims were lodged as a result of being assaulted at work in 2010/11, costing an average of Aus$6,400 (£3,744) each and requiring three weeks off work. More than 4,500 claims for mental stress as a result of exposure to occupational violence were successful in Australia between 2008/09 and 2010/11, with almost 60 per cent of the claimants female. Groups most vulnerable to experiencing violence include those who work alone at night handling cash - such as retail workers, takeaway food delivery drivers and taxi drivers - emergency workers, security guards, prison officers, health professionals and teachers. ACTU president Ged Kearney said employers need to be aware of their duty of care. “The onus is on employers to take the time to ensure their staff are safe; they must stand back and seriously assess the workplace risk factors,” she said.

Global: Meet Walmart’s worst nightmare

Kalpona Akter, fired and then jailed after trying to unionise her sweatshop as a teenager, is now a key leader in the Bangladesh labour movement. Over the past year, Akter - now executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity - has salvaged and exposed garments manufactured for US brands from the site of a deadly factory fire and challenged Walmart from the floor of its shareholder meeting. Walmart, a conspicuous absentee from the union-brokered fire and safety accord in Bangladesh, has blamed production of Wal-Mart apparel in factories where disasters later took place on rogue suppliers. It is an argument dismissed by Akter. In an interview with, she said workers want “a dignified job, for a better wage, a safe working place, with a union voice, but what do they get? A long shift and hours, an excessive production target, an unsafe workplace - like Tazreen and Rana - and no union voice. They’re forced to do overtime; they don’t have any social life. They work six days in a week - sometimes seven. There is no downtime to have fun.” She added “if a worker cannot give their voice to improve the safety problem, if they don’t have that power, then nothing will be changed.” She said the union-backed fire and safety accord was to be preferred to the Walmart and GAP-backed alliance set up as an alternative as it gives workers a voice. She said since the union-brokered accord was introduced, workers had become bolder. And she dismissed the Walmart/GAP alternative because it “is not binding, there is no union participation, there is no workers’ participation. So that really doesn’t make any sense to us… we ask all these Alliance members to sign the Accord, rather than working on their so-called Alliance.”

USA: OSHA to go public on injury performance

The US government’s safety watchdog has announced plans to make publicly available the safety records of large firms. A proposed rule issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) follows the Bureau of Labor Statistics' release of its annual Occupational Injuries and Illnesses report, which estimates that three million workers were injured on the job in 2012. “Three million injuries are three million too many,” said OSHA head David Michaels. “Public posting of workplace illness and injury information will nudge employers to better identify and eliminate hazards,” Michaels told reporters in a telephone news conference. “We believe that responsible employers will want to be recognised as leaders in safety.” OSHA said the change is in line with President Barack Obama's initiative to increase public access to government data. The plan would require companies with more than 250 employees to submit the data electronically on a quarterly basis. That would cover about 38,000 American companies, Michaels said. Companies with 20 or more employees in certain industries with high injury and illness rates would be required to submit electronically a summary of work-related injuries and illnesses once a year. That would cover another 440,000 companies. Under current rules, employers are required to post annual summaries of injury and illness reports in a common area where they can be seen by employees. Business groups say they are likely to oppose the plan, contending that raw injury data can be misleading or contain sensitive information that can be misused. But Eric Frumin, health and safety director at the Change to Win union federation, said the new process creates very little burden on employers that are “simply providing additional details that they are already collecting on the causes of these injuries and ways to prevent them.” Private employers in the US reported nearly 3 million workplace injuries and illnesses last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 4,300 workers died last year after being injured at work.


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