Down East 2013 ©
Maine is fortunate to have very few workplace fatalities each year, making any annual assessment of the deadliest jobs in the state misleading at best. But national numbers, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, help paint a picture of which occupations have the highest fatality rate. These were America's deadliest jobs for 2005:
Number of Fatalities per 100,000 employed
1. Fishers and Related Fishing Workers 118.4
2. Logging Workers 92.
3. Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers 66.9
4. Structural Iron and Steel Workers 55.6
5. Refuse and Recyclable Material Collectors 43.8
6. Farmers and Ranchers 41.1
7. Electrical Power-Line Installers and Repairers 32.7
8. Drivers/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers 29.1
9. Miscellaneous Agricultural Workers 23.2
10. Construction Laborers 22.7
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Potato Harvester Safety bulletin was written by Steven Johnson but reads like Stephen King. It's the story of an innocuous-sounding machine that can maim you in grisly and unexpected ways. Example: Hydraulic fluid from a leaky high-pressure hose can pierce your finger like a hypodermic needle. "If any fluid is injected into the skin," the bulletin warns, "it must be surgically removed within a few hours or gangrene may set in."
The potato harvester is, in short, a monster. "There's a hundred-horse diesel [engine] up top just to run the fan," says Johnson, a UMCE crops specialist. "They're more powerful than you can imagine."
But it isn't hard to imagine what might happen if an untrained teenager tried to operate one. During the annual potato harvest, says Johnson, "the major proportion of injuries happen on the first day, in the first hour. You have your eighteen-year-old invincible young man: 'You think I'm going to tell someone that I don't know how the machine works?' "
To counter that attitude, Johnson wrote a simple directive: "Give an orientation of the machine to workers before they start."
That ought to go without saying. It doesn't. So Johnson says it — in his bulletin, in classrooms, on Potato Picker Special, an early-morning program that airs each fall on WAGM-TV8 in Presque Isle. His efforts have made a measurable difference. In 1988, there were 120 serious injuries during Maine's potato harvest, including one fatality. These days there are typically less than two dozen.
Still, much remains to be done — not just in the potato fields, but on all of Maine's farms. Johnson recites some of the threats that agricultural workers face: "Crushed feet, either from large animals or trucks. Respiratory issues, whether you're dealing with silo-filler's lung or dusty environments. Gasses, infectious agents. Mold. There are some mycoses that are pretty ugly. Exposure to chemicals and pesticides. Carbon monoxide poisoning from running equipment in enclosed buildings. Skin cancer, from being outside so much."
Scary stuff. And it helps explain why farming is a perennial entry on the list of America's ten deadliest jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Logging and fishing always make the list, too. That's a big part of the reason Mainers have traditionally suffered more on-the-job injuries than the national average. Call them accidents of geography; with its abundant forests, fields, and seaports, Maine has always offered plenty of opportunities in hazardous occupations. But with an increased emphasis on safety, Maine saw a drop of almost 25 percent in workplace injuries from 2000 to 2004, the most recent year for which state statistics are available.
Some of the credit for the decline goes to the Maine Employers' Mutual Insurance Company (MEMIC), which was created by an act of the Maine legislature in 1993. Since then, workers' comp rates have dropped by about 30 percent in Maine, to go along with the decline in injuries. "We helped employers and employees to see workplace safety not only as a moral issue but as an economic one," says MEMIC spokesman Mike Bourque. "We have a staff of nearly forty professionals who do nothing but provide safety training and consultation."
One of those professionals is Andy Wood, who was a logging contractor during the industry's bad old days. "In the '80s and early '90s we were killing four loggers per year in the state of Maine," says Wood. "We looked at the numbers and said, 'This is just not acceptable.' "
By 1993 Wood had helped form the Certified Logging Professional program and was researching ways to improve safety. His research led him to MEMIC — which hired him as a logging safety specialist. "To go from running a logging operation to working for an insurance company is one thing you think you'd never do," he says.
Actually, his real-world experience as a logger made him the ideal candidate. "That was a huge part of getting the program off the ground," he says. "If people were skeptical about a new felling technique, we could just grab a saw and show them. It buys you a lot of credibility."
The greatest risk to Maine's loggers was the most obvious: falling trees. So Wood focused on teaching "felling skills and escape routes." Before long MEMIC made the training program mandatory. Since then, says Wood, "Frequency of injury is down 63 percent and severity of injury is down 83 percent."
Still, not everybody's buying. Wood estimates that MEMIC insures roughly half the state's 3,500 or so loggers. "They're a pretty independent group," Wood says. "A lot of guys went to the woods because they didn't want to deal with stuff like continuing education and classrooms and people coming out to do evaluations. But in the last several years it's gotten easier because people have seen the success of the program."
Elsewhere in the country, change is happening more slowly, if at all. In 2004 the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked logging as America's deadliest job (in 2005 it placed second). "If you just go by that, it looks like we haven't come very far," says Wood. "But if you look at Maine, [MEMIC] has more business than ever and just a fraction of the losses. We've changed the culture. So while it's still dangerous to be around heavy equipment and falling trees, logging doesn't have to be the worst [job] in the nation."
If logging had the worst safety record in the nation in 2004, fishing has the worst in the world. The numbers are numbing: in 2000, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that 24,000 fishermen died annually — 7 percent of all workplace deaths worldwide — and another 24 million suffered nonfatal injuries.
The losses have been felt locally as well as globally. During a thirteen-month period that bracketed the release of the ILO figures, ten Maine fishermen died. That prompted then-Governor Angus King to establish a task force to investigate the problem, which led to the formation of the Commercial Fishing Safety Council.
Five years later, the council is still trying to push through its first piece of legislation. "The bureaucracy is just so slow," says council chairman Bob Baines. "And everyone has [another] job." Including Baines, a lobsterman from Spruce Head who volunteered to serve on the council. Asked to name the most dangerous aspect of his job, he laughs and says, "Testifying before the legislature."
Actually, says Baines, the greatest risk in his industry is winter fishing. "If you end up overboard in the summer, your chances of survival are so much better," he says. "In the winter, the weather compounds everything." Many lobstermen spend the winter months on draggers. But that's hardly risk-free; draggers work miles offshore, where they are subject to brutal and unpredictable storms. And if trouble strikes, help can be hours away.
Still, at least draggers, which are subject to federal regulations, have to meet basic requirements for safety equipment and training. Maine-registered lobsterboats don't. "They only have to have the equipment inside state waters, and that certainly isn't enough," Baines says. "We wanted parity between state-registered boats and federally documented boats, so we put together a matrix of required fishing gear that pretty much matched the federal regulations."
That's when the council got its first lesson in lawmaking. Maine's regulations can't preempt federal regulations. So the Coast Guard would have to sign off any new state laws. "If the Coast Guard agrees," says Baines, "then we have to get an act of Congress."
The council has also recommended adding a safety training course to the lobster apprenticeship program. To help build momentum, Baines encouraged more than a dozen veteran lobstermen to take a safety course through McMillan Offshore Survival Training in Belfast. "Every single one of them said, 'Wow, was that worthwhile,' " Baines says. "And these were all guys who have been fishing for quite some time."
Which means they know how risky it can be. Working on a lobsterboat is like working in a factory during an earthquake. It requires performing a series of repetitive tasks using dangerous equipment like gaffs and pot haulers, all on a moving surface. Danger lurks constantly underfoot. "I don't know a fisherman who hasn't been tangled up in a line," Baines says. "A lot of boots have gone overboard."
The danger increases exponentially when working alone. "Having a sternman makes it so much safer," says Baines. "Because if one guy gets caught up in the line, the other one can put the boat in reverse so that you can back it down until you get your foot out. If you're fishing alone and you get tangled up and the boat's in gear, you'll get dragged down to the stern. If you don't have a knife with you or some way to shut the engine down, you can only hold on for so long."
That sort of immediate, life-or-death crisis management couldn't be much different from the tortuous process of making laws. Still, each type of work has its rewards. "If we can get safety-gear regulations passed for the state-registered boats," says Baines, "Maine would be the first state in the country to do that."
When it comes to improving their safety record, Maine's builders and contractors would rather do it themselves — with no help from the government.
More than thirty thousand Mainers work in construction, building everything from garages to bridges. The smaller the job, the greater the probability of getting hurt; injury rates for residential builders are among the highest in Maine. "Our focus has been on the single-family-home contractor," says Mike Bourque, spokesman for the Maine Employers' Mutual Insurance Company. "Many smaller contractors are less trained and have fewer constraints. And some have that old-time Maine independence. That can be difficult to get through at times."
Anyone can become a builder in Maine; no license is required. And any attempt to introduce licensing runs into opposition from organizations like Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc.
With good reason, says Kathleen Newman, president of ABC's Maine chapter. "Licensing isn't about safety," Newman says. Instead, she says, it's an attempt to protect homeowners from "so-called gypsy contractors" who accept money down and then do shoddy work or fail to complete a job.
Newman says disreputable builders can be punished through existing laws, and that licensing won't guarantee quality work. "Nail techs are licensed in the state of Maine," she says, "but I still get a bad manicure every once in a while."
Citing ABC's Safety Training and Evaluation Program, Newman says, "Safety is already the most important thing on our jobsites. Let us keep it that way. This approach of [government] sort of nipping around the edges, trying to regulate through cookie-cutter approaches, isn't helping our industry."
She says attempts to regulate large contractors are even more misguided. "One thing that came up in the legislature this year was mandatory OSHA ten-hour training for every worker on a state construction site. For heaven's sakes, these companies already have very sophisticated safety programs in place that are more expansive and tailored to their own needs."
As an example, Newman cites Cianbro, a Pittsfield-based contractor that handles a variety of construction jobs, from pulp and paper mills to jetties and breakwaters. "Their philosophy is just incredible, and it goes well beyond anything that the government could ever impose."
"The OSHA laws are very well written and they're a great guideline," says Allen Burton, Cianbro's vice president of human resources, safety, and health. "But from my perspective, they don't go far enough."
Founded in 1946, Cianbro developed its current approach about twenty years ago. "I wish I could say that it wasn't dollar-driven initially, but it was," Burton says. "From 1981 to 1987 we had spent $21 million in worker's comp claims. If we'd kept going in that direction we would have been out of business."
Burton says the key to improving safety was to focus on eliminating hazards rather than merely trying to reduce them. And the approach has worked; during the year-long construction of a 577-space parking garage at the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, for instance, Cianbro reported no lost time due to injuries.
It isn't enough to set tough standards, Burton says — you have to enforce them. "When people don't do what's expected of them, there have to be consequences."
For example, Cianbro requires all employees who work above a certain height to wear a restraint at all times. "If you're not tied off," Burton says, "you go home for three days without pay for the first offense. If you have a second offense within twelve months, you're terminated."
The same goes for any supervisor who knowingly allowed the violation. Burton says that while Cianbro's policy may be sophisticated in its execution, it comes down to a simple philosophy: "If you can't work safe you can't work here."
Surviving the Driving
The more time you spend behind the wheel for your work, the greater your chances of being injured.
Trucker, salesman, chauffeur, garbage collector, lineman — it doesn't matter what the specific job is. If you spend significant time on the road, your chances of being injured are greater than if you work in an office. "In most years," says MEMIC spokesman Mike Bourque, "more than half the [on-the-job] fatalities among all workers are from auto accidents."
Many factors can increase the risk of serious accidents in Maine, including long winters, a large moose population, and miles of remote, private roads. It was along one such road on September 12, 2002, that a van went off a one-lane bridge into the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, killing fourteen migrant forestry workers. That single accident accounted for nearly half the state's workplace fatalities for the entire year. And during the ten years from 1995 to 2004, truck drivers suffered more fatalities (fifty-four) than any other occupation in Maine.
"Trucking companies operate at a very small margin, especially with fuel costs rising," says Lieutenant Thomas Kelly, head of the Maine State Police commercial vehicle enforcement unit. "Some of them start to weigh safety against profit. Sometimes that puts either the driver or the vehicle past the limits. When a driver gets overextended, tired driving becomes an issue. So we just have to maintain our enforcement levels and try to keep those companies honest." Lieutenant Kelly estimates that about 20 percent of the trucks inspected along Maine highways end up being put out of service.
Maine's legislators are lobbying for a change in federal law that many feel would also help make the state's highways safer: increasing the weight limit on Interstate 95 north of Augusta from eighty thousand pounds to a hundred thousand pounds. (The Maine Turnpike is exempt from the federal limit.) Essentially, the federal law assumes that all trucks have five axles. But the logging and paper industries use six-axle trucks that can support a hundred thousand pounds. As the law now stands, however, those trucks have to bypass Interstate 95 and travel on narrow secondary roads. In other words, a federal law intended to increase highway safety could actually be having the opposite effect in northern Maine. (Lawmakers have had better results at the state level. Fifteen-passenger vans of the type that plunged into the Allagash Wilderness Waterway are now outlawed in the forestry industry.)
But Bourque says employers shouldn't let regulators do all their work for them. "Don't take it for granted that everybody knows how to drive. If you don't explicitly talk to your employees about what your standards are, even for people who might drive just once a week, that's a risk you're not actively controlling."
Keeping Cops Safe
The Maine Criminal Justice Academy teaches cops to stay safe while doing one of the state's riskiest jobs.
Comparing levels of danger in different jobs is dangerous. You can get hurt jumping to conclusions. Often a high rate of on-the-job injuries has less to do with inherent risk than with poor preparation, poor judgment, poor fitness, or all three. Healthy well-trained workers are less likely to become statistics. And there's no better example of that than cops.
Law enforcement is not among the ten jobs with the highest injury rates in Maine, yet working in grocery stores is. But it's ludicrous to conclude from those rankings that running a register is more dangerous than pursuing a robbery suspect. "If you don't think driving in a high-speed chase is dangerous — boy, let me tell you: been there, done it," says John B. Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. "It is very dangerous. But we teach the right way."
Getting through the academy is difficult — and so is getting in. "You have to pass a medical physical, a physical fitness test, a polygraph exam, a psychological test, a written test, and a complete background check," says Rogers. "That screens out a lot of people."
Rogers estimates that the physical requirements alone eliminate one candidate in four. "This program is very physically demanding," he says. "First day of the academy we take them out for a three-mile run. And it only goes up from there. We try to teach lifetime fitness, because officers who are not physically fit generally get hurt more on the job, are less motivated, and use more workmens' comp and sick time."
The academy also teaches cadets how to solve problems using limited resources. "Most officers in Maine will work by themselves as the only cop in the town or the county, or they're going to work in one-man cars," Rogers says. "So an officer has to handle a lot on his own."
Rogers offers a typical scenario: "Let's say you're in a one-man car in a rural area and you get a domestic-violence call. You have to do the interviewing and the evidence-gathering. You have to arrest the suspect if you have a probable cause developed. And at some point you've got to take pictures and interview the victim, and maybe take the victim to the hospital."
Few urban cops operate in such circumstances. But there is one problem common to cops in rural Maine and their big-city brethren: an increase in drug-related crime. Armed robberies in Maine went up by more than 10 percent from 2004 to 2005, with drug use a likely underlying cause. (In this case, some cashiers do face a risk equivalent to a cop's. Convenience stores and pharmacies are frequent targets of drug-related holdups — the former because they're convenient for criminals as well as customers; the latter because they contain addictive drugs like OxyContin as well as cash.)
Rogers says that most cops are better equipped to handle violent situations than they used to be. "I don't know a single officer right now that doesn't go to work with a bullet-proof vest," he says. "Not one."
But he adds that "most of the saves on bullet-proof vests aren't gunshots. They're impacts." Like an airbag, a bullet-proof vest reduces trauma in a car crash. In addition, many patrol cars are reinforced with cages in the back that include roll bars. "I hit a telephone pole once when I was in a high-speed chase," Rogers says. "The roll bar saved my life."
Cops don't have to be in high-speed chases to be at risk behind the wheel. Rogers recalls the time he was on routine patrol when a driver who later registered .16 on a Breathalyzer came around the corner and slammed into the back of the cruiser.
Just another hazard of being a Maine cop. Says Rogers, "You can be driving down the road and some drunk creams you."
Shaping Up & Shipping Out
When NASA vowed to improve its safety culture in the wake of the Columbia disaster, it chose an unlikely model: Bath Iron Works.
Building big boats is a hazardous occupation by any measure. Here's one: among all Maine industries, shipbuilding reports the fifth-highest rate of lost-time injuries. Here's another: in a geographic survey of workers' comp claims, Sagadahoc County annually records a rate twice as high as any other Maine county by an approximate factor of two.
Sagadahoc County's largest employer is Bath Iron Works (BIW).
BIW has had a checkered safety history. At the shipyard's low point, in 1987, OSHA proposed what was then the agency's largest fine, $4.1 million, following an onsite inspection. And while there were more good years than bad over the next decade or so, BIW's lost-time injury rate remained well above the industry average. Finally, after being named in twenty-seven formal OSHA complaints in 1999, BIW experienced a "safety catharsis."
Who said so? NASA. The space agency used those words in a 2004 "benchmarking report" that documented improvements at BIW between 1999 and 2002. Those improvements were so dramatic that NASA looked to BIW for guidance in improving its own safety environment in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. After visiting BIW in the spring of 2004, then-NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe assembled a team to return to Bath that August for further study. That visit, the report notes, "provided the NASA review team with an excellent case study of corporate transformation to a strong safety culture by changing employee behavior."
With the injury rate for the first six months of 2006 slightly above the same period in 2005, no one among BIW's management wants to boast about recent improvements. As the company's president, the improbably named Dugan Shipway, noted in BIW's July newsletter: "Injury rates as reported over the last six months are unacceptable. . . . Additional actions are needed now to continue the several-year trend we have had in improving safety metrics."
In contrast to many other hazardous occupations in Maine, the state's long-term care industry has seen conditions go from bad to worse. And the worst may be yet to come.
A decade ago, the Service Employees International Union released a report called "Caring Till It Hurts — How Nursing Home Work Is Becoming the Most Dangerous Job in America." Since 1984, the report noted, injuries to nursing home workers had increased by 55 percent. Much of the increase was due to back problems. Working alone and with inadequate equipment, caregivers often injured themselves lifting patients in and out of bed. Nursing home workers also faced exposure to infectious diseases and the risk of being stuck with used needles. The report concluded that "working in a nursing home is more dangerous than working in a coal mine, a steel mill, a warehouse, or a paper mill."
That danger remains. It is particularly acute in Maine, where the percentage of elderly residents is already among the highest in the nation, and climbing. According to some estimates, one in five Mainers will be over sixty-five within twenty years. And there may be fewer trained professionals than ever to care for them; a recent report from the Maine Center for Economic Policy concluded that "low Medicaid reimbursement rates have inhibited providers from being able to compete for labor." There are now more than a thousand nursing vacancies in Maine, and that number could increase fivefold by 2020. Meanwhile, lower-level caregivers typically make less than ten dollars an hour, with few if any benefits.
All of which can lead to a scenario like the one described last February in a report to the Maine legislature: a woman went from working at Burger King one day to bathing patients in an Alzheimer's facility the next. Having received little training in how to deal with Alzheimer's patients, she was assaulted during her first day on the job.
That was not an isolated incident. With more elderly Mainers being treated through home care or assisted living, the number of nursing home patients in the state has declined in the last dozen years. "But one byproduct of that," says Rick Erb, president of the Maine Health Care Association, "is that in Maine, only the oldest and sickest people are going into nursing homes now. That raises the acuity levels."
More than half of Maine's nursing home residents now suffer from Alzheimer's or mental-health problems, ranging from depression to dementia. That has put workers at increased risk — so much so that the Maine Department of Labor now lists "hitting, beating, and kicking" among the top five causes of workplace injuries to nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants.
And the injuries aren't just physical; Maine Department of Labor also notes that a significant number of health-care workers are being treated for "neurotic reaction to stress." Combined, these factors make long-term care Maine's most difficult and dangerous occupation — with no relief in sight. "It's already a very serious problem," Erb says. "And when you look at the numbers we'll be dealing with in the next ten to twenty years, I think we're going to go from a serious problem to one that verges on crisis."