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Isle workplaces safer, data show

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George Pulmano fell off a wooden pallet that he was using to reach frozen-food boxes at a small family business near the airport.

A forklift supporting the pallet backed up, and Pulmano landed face down on concrete 10 feet below. He died of head and torso injuries a day later.

Pulmano’s death last March was one of six reported workplace deaths in Hawaii during federal fiscal year 2010, which ended in September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But his was also one of four fall-related deaths here last year, which prompted the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to launch an educational campaign to reduce falls in the workplace.

The department held seminars for workers and employers and issued about 50 citations over a two-month period, said department spokesman Ryan Markham.

Since the end of the stepped-up enforcement in June, there haven’t been any fall-related work deaths reported in Hawaii. The last one was a tree trimmer in May, according to state data.

The six deaths in 2010 do not include self-employed workers or highway, aircraft and boat accidents, said Jennifer Shishido, administrator of the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division. A complete figure, compiled by looking at death records, won’t be finalized until early next year.

But workplace deaths in Hawaii have been falling the past few years. The figure for fiscal 2009 — 13, which includes self-employed workers and transportation accidents — was the lowest in 12 years, according to preliminary numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Since federal fiscal year 2010 ended in September, Hawaii has had two more workplace deaths: a man killed in October when his tractor rolled over in Mililani and a farmworker hit by a reversing pickup in Waipio in December.

How can Hawaii account for its improved workplace safety?

Some experts say work injuries have been dropping with employment in Hawaii, especially with the decline in dangerous industries such as construction.

Lawrence Boyd, a labor economist at the University of Hawaii, said construction employment fell faster — by 20 percent — between 2008 and 2010, while overall employment fell 6 percent during the same period.

He also said deaths per capita remain low here, with only two per 100,000 in 2009, compared with seven per 100,000 in 2001. That year, 41 people died of workplace injuries.

Experts say the low number of fatalities in Hawaii makes it difficult to pinpoint trends.

Apart from the four falls last year, one man was crushed between two vehicles, and another drowned while diving for black coral, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Labor Department.

Some experts surmised that the decline in worker fatalities might be due to improvements in technology and training.

"A safer workplace is one that’s engineered in a way that is safe," Boyd said.

For example, bus companies provide orthopedic chairs to prevent back injuries for drivers.

Union workers also tend to have fewer injuries than nonunion workers because of training and protections, he said.

Leonard Hoshijo of the 7,000-member Hawaii Carpenters Union said the union requires members to receive safety training. A typical contract requires the employer to allow union representatives to monitor job sites for hazards and protects employees who raise safety concerns.

"State and federal law have some of these protections, but people maybe feel afraid to exercise their rights (without a union)," he said.

Boyd said he suspects the number of work-related injuries will remain low this year, despite an increase in construction jobs for the rail project, since most of the work will be done by unionized labor.

"Union employers tend to be better organized, too," Boyd said. "Not only does a union have a department that deals with health and safety, but so does the employer."

Shishido, of the state Labor Department, said work fatalities might drop during a bad economy because newer employees are laid off first. Studies have shown that more accidents happen to those with less than three months of experience, she said.

However, she cautioned that during a poor economy, employees might not report smaller injuries for fear of losing their jobs. Because of the fewer injuries reported, the company’s vigilance to prevent accidents wanes, and the severity of the injuries grows worse, she said.

Participation in health and safety training has shown to lead to fewer work injuries, she said in an e-mail.

"There is definitely a correlation between employee safety and health training," she said.

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