Small Companies Account for Larger Share of Construction Fatalities

The overwhelming majority of construction companies with payroll have fewer than 20 employees, but according to a recent report from CPWR, the research and training arm of North America’s Building Trades Unions, these companies often lag behind larger firms in safety management. The organization’s report, “Fatal Injuries among Small Construction Establishments,” compares the trends and characteristics of fatalities between small and large establishments over time.

Company Size Data

According to CPWR calculations of U.S. Census Bureau data, 81.6 percent of construction companies employ fewer than ten people, 9.4 percent employ ten to 19 people, 8 percent employ 20-99 people and only 1.1 percent of companies employ 100 people or more. The number of construction employers with fewer than ten employees totals approximately 568,557 establishments compared to 522 establishments that employ 500 people or more.

However, the largest percentage of construction workers (33.7 percent), which includes glaziers, work for companies that employ 20-99 people. Approximately 37 percent of employees work for companies that have fewer than 20 employees and approximately 30 percent of employees work for large companies that employ 100 or more people in 2016.

There were approximately 450,000 specialty trade contractors, 210,500 building construction companies and 38,500 heavy and civil engineering construction companies in 2016.

Fatalities in Construction

The CPWR report shows that fatalities among wage-and-salary construction workers followed the pattern of payroll establishments. The number of establishments peaked in 2007, as did the number of fatalities in construction. There were 793 construction-related fatalities in 2007. That number fell 35 percent to a low of 514 in 2012, but then rose 36 percent to 701 fatalities in 2016.

“Small establishments suffer a disproportionate share of fatal work injuries,” reads the report. “From 2003 to 2016, 5,155 fatalities were reported in establishments with fewer than 20 employees, accounting for more than half (56.6 percent) of fatalities with known establishment size.”

The share of fatalities among construction companies with one to ten employees rose from 44 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2016. More than two-thirds of fatalities occurred among workers employed by companies with fewer than 20 employees in 2016, despite those companies employing 37 percent of construction workers. Establishments with 100 or more employees accounted for 14 percent of fatalities, but employed nearly 30 percent of workers in 2016.

“From 2003 to 2016, the rate of fatalities for establishments with fewer than 20 employees was significantly higher than those with 20 or more employees,” reads the report.

For small establishments, the rate rose 57 percent from 15.5 per 100,000 wage-and-salary workers in 2008 to 24.4 in 2016, while the rate decreased by about 30 percent among establishments with 20 or more employees from 2008 to 2016.

Fatality Causes

The leading cause of fatalities in construction from 1992 to 2016 was falling to a lower level, which caused more than 8,500 deaths. The second leading cause during this period was struck-by incidents, accounting for more than 4,800 deaths. Electrocution and caught-in/between incidents round out the four leading causes of fatalities in construction.

“Fatalities caused by falls or electrocutions were disproportionately higher in small construction establishments than those by other causes. From 2011 to 2016, nearly 62 percent of fall fatalities occurred in establishments with ten or fewer employees,” reads the report.

While smaller establishments had more fatalities caused by falls, companies with 100 or more employees were more than twice as likely to account for falls from larger than 30 feet.

By subsector, nearly 78 percent of fatalities in the residential building subsector occurred at companies with fewer than 11 employees, a higher percentage than all other subsectors. Conversely, nearly 45 percent of fatalities among the nonresidential building subsector occurred at companies with greater than 20 employees. Fatalities among ironworkers also occurred in a greater percentage among companies with greater than 20 employees.

The CPWR report also analyzed fatalities in regards to age.

Younger employees were more likely to die at small construction establishments than other age groups. From 2011 to 2016, 55.3 percent of fatalities were among workers under the age of 45 at establishments with ten or fewer employees, compared to 50.6 percent at establishments with 100 or more employees.

From 2011-2016, Hispanic wage-and-salary construction workers faced a higher proportion of deaths in establishments with ten or fewer employees (32.3 percent) compared to companies with 100 or more employees (22 percent), whereas fatalities among white and black workers were greater among larger companies.

“Small construction businesses may face many barriers to implementing health and safety programs, such as limited resources and increasing pressures from business competition,” reads the report’s conclusion.

The report suggested OSHA’s Small Business Assistance website as one resource smaller companies can turn to for safety information. CPWR plans to work with industry partners to address the needs of small establishments.

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