JEFFERSON CITY - Federal statistics would suggest Missouri has become a less safe place to work.
According to a recent Department of Labor release, the number of fatal work injuries in Missouri rose by 21% during 2002, with 30 more deaths than the previous year.
Nationally, Missouri ranked ninth in highest of the nation's states in fatal occupational injuries according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kansas and Iowa combined did not even equal Missouri's 175 work-deaths.
Ken Wilkes, chief of research and analysis for Missouri's Labor Department, said the figures got the department's attention.
"It certainly stands out," he said. "An increase by something like that is certainly not what you want to see happen."
Yet, neither he nor other officials could speculate as to why the surge happened.
This year, the state's agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry division diplaced the construction industry from the odious position of having the most work-related fatalities.
Debbie Vaughan, a research analyst for the state Labor Department, said that the numbers may not be conclusive because several factors go into the findings.
Vaughan said the department receives its information on fatalities from outside sources, relying heavily on coroners and medical examiners. If the incident is not reported to the department, it will not have the incident recorded.
To promote worker safety, the department has several programs to assist employers in identifying workplace hazards. One program offers on-site safety and health consultations for small businesses to comply with federal standards. However, a Labor Department spokesperson, Tammi Cavender, said it's up to businesses to take advantage of the department's program.
"We can try and increase our availability and visibility to them, but if they don't want us, they don't want us," Cavender said. Less than 500 of the 144,000 small businesses in Missouri requested the consultation this year.
Cavender said she did not forsee any large-scale changes in the departments programs.
A glimmer of hope for 2003 remains though. For the 2003 fiscal year, Missouri's Division of Worker's Compensation has only 138 claims filed of fatal work injuries that it is researching.
However, Cavender said that not all cases are filed with the state agency, so the final results will have to wait for next year's Bureau of Labor Statistics report.