Danger zone: Work is safer than it used to be, but some jobs are still hazardous

Farmer harvesting soybeans near Worthington, Minnesota
Minnesota's undocumented population, which work in key industries like agriculture, worry about their health and economic picture amid COVID-19 pandemic. File photo shows a soybean farmer harvesting in Worthington, Minnesota, one of the state's most diverse agriculture center. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Work-related illness and injuries in Minnesota reached all-time lows in 2018, but experts are concerned about persistently high injury rates in risky industries like construction and agriculture.

Workplace injury rates have dropped nationwide in the past several decades because of regulatory and cultural changes. Farmers and construction workers are still at higher risk of being hurt by heavy equipment and accidents, however. Experts in Minnesota hope targeted efforts in hazardous industries will help more employees return home safely each day.

The overall good news comes even as an inspection by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry led to the closure of a plant in White Bear Township last year. The inspection found that conditions at Water Gremlin caused concerns about lead exposure and contamination for workers and their families, according to the department. At least 12 children of Water Gremlin employees had elevated lead levels in their blood as a result, Ramsey County health investigators found. 

In Minnesota, roughly 3 out of every 100 workers — a total of 71,600 people — were injured on the job in 2018, about the same as the national injury rate, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. The state’s injury rate has dropped about 60% in the past two decades, according to the department.


Improvements in public health, especially transportation safety, have contributed to the decline in work-related injuries across the United States, said Marizen Ramirez, director of the research and training institute of the Midwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety.

A large portion of occupational injuries are caused by car crashes. The engineering, equipment and safety enhancements that have made travel safer have also benefited workers, Ramirez said.

Still, transportation is a leading cause of work-related deaths in Minnesota. Nearly half of occupational fatalities in 2017 were the result of a transportation incidents like car accidents, pedestrian collisions and railroad crashes, according to most recent available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Advancements in technology and equipment have also played a role, Ramirez said. For example, modern tractors have rollover protections to prevent farmers from being crushed in accidents.

James Krueger, director of Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance, said the state’s strategic plans have led to improvements in worker well-being, like a reduced number of falls on construction sites. 

Despite these improvements, experts worry about the relatively high injury rates in industries like construction and agriculture. 

Roughly 23 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers in agriculture, fishing, forestry and hunting — one category tracked by the federal government — were reported in Minnesota in 2018. That’s nearly 10 times the state’s overall work-related fatality rate. In construction, there were just over seven deaths per 100,000 workers.

These industries tend to be more dangerous because of workers’ exposure to high-powered equipment and the potential for injury from accidents like falls, Ramirez said. 

Young workers in these industries are especially at risk, she said. Developing brains may not be able to process workplace hazards, plus equipment designed for full-grown adults isn’t sized for smaller bodies. To keep young workers safe, some in agriculture are trying to educate employers about the developmental differences between a 45-year-old farm worker and an 18-year-old, for example.

Mental health has become a newer focus in occupational safety, especially in industries like agriculture, where high rates of suicide are a new concern, Ramirez said. People in rural communities have limited access to mental health care and may encounter stigma that discourages them from seeking help, she said.

Minnesota OSHA continues to work toward improvements in construction and agriculture, Krueger said. One of the agency’s current initiatives aims to improve traffic planning at construction sites to reduce the number of incidents involving vehicle and equipment crashes.

Grain facilities are another area of emphasis for Minnesota OSHA. To keep workers from being crushed or trapped in the notoriously dangerous facilities, the agency is increasing inspections and ensuring companies have rescue procedures ready to help employees if necessary, Krueger said.

What is your experience with workplace safety and injuries? Share your story by confidentially emailing the Reformer: [email protected]