Washington state

Homicide the leading cause of women’s deaths in Washington state workplaces, report shows

More women in Washington state died at work from homicide than any other cause from 2009 through 2018, a study by the state Department of Labor & Industries has found.

“The finding that 20 women have died due to violence in the workplace in just about 10 years is really disturbing,” said Todd Schoonover, principal investigator for L&I’s Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program.

The 21-page annual report on work-related fatalities includes brief descriptions of the deaths by industry, but it does not separate them by gender.

One vignette uses a female pronoun, referring to a vineyard laborer who was shot by her estranged husband. The department might publish more about the individual cases of women being murdered in the workplace, Schoonover said.

“There aren’t as many women in the high hazard industries like construction, agriculture, transportation and warehousing,” said Christina Rappin, a research investigator with L&I’s fatality study program. “So the homicides that we’re seeing of women are often fatal shootings in the workplace by people that they know.”

Overall, 76 people died in traumatic incidents on the job last year in Washington, two fewer than the previous year, according to L&I data.

The transportation and warehousing industry had the highest number of workplace fatalities last year with 13 — two more than in 2017.

Six heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers died on the job in 2018, 10 fewer than the previous year.

The construction industry had 11 worker fatalities last year, four fewer than 2017.

Last year, 11 workers in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry died in workplace incidents, one more than the previous year.

Breaking down the fatalities by county, the numbers mirrored population figures, with King ranking first at 15 and Pierce County second at 12, the county’s highest number since 2009. Whatcom and Benton each had three. Franklin had two, and Thurston had one.

L&I’s annual report helps inform the department about the types of workplace deaths it needs to prevent, officials said.

“I was glad to see we had fewer truck driver fatalities than we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” said Rappin, the research investigator with L&I’s fatality study program. “I hope that means that’s the start of a new trend. These are small numbers, and so you can’t necessarily make assumptions about trends year to year.”

From 2009 through 2018, 59 workers died on the job from homicide and 42 by suicide. Last year, nine workers died from homicide, the highest number since 2009.

Ten workers died last year on the job from suicide, the highest number in a decade. All were male and three were active-duty military personnel.

The report said three food-delivery drivers died last year in motor vehicle incidents, a possible indicator of the change in the economy as more people have their meals delivered to home and the office, said Schoonover, the L&I principal investigator for the fatality study program.

L&I’s data covers people who were working in Washington or in waters or airspace off the state and died due to a work-related incident.

Workers who lived in other states who died in Washington are included. Deaths due to natural causes, such as heart attacks and aneurysms, are not included unless the root cause is determined to be the result of a work injury. Also, deaths from long-term exposure to diseases such as asbestosis are not included.

There were 689 traumatic work-related deaths in Washington from 2009 through 2018, with the numbers ranging from a high of 89 in 2010 to a low of 53 in 2011.

According to the L&I report, motor vehicle incidents were the leading cause of work-related deaths in 2018. The 19 incidents accounted for 25 percent of deaths. Falls caused 15 worker deaths, nine fewer than in 2017.

Washington is among seven states that receive funding through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to collect data that helps L&I work with industries that have consistently high numbers of traumatic deaths.

For collectors of data, it’s become increasingly difficult to tease out what is work-related, given that many employees check their email or do other tasks during non-working hours, said Marissa Baker, deputy director of the Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Washington and an assistant professor.

“Everything is blurred. When your work goes into your personal life, how do you delineate what is a workplace injury or illness or fatality and what is a personal one?” Baker said.

L&I follows federal guidelines for data collection, but there are gray areas, said Randy Clark, an L&I safety and health specialist with the fatality study program.

“The gig economy has really grown and workplaces have changed. We do our best to track that. The changing nature of work makes it more challenging to track work status, but we are doing our best to account for these things,” he said.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.