Business & Tech

Worker deaths continue to rise in Mass.

Globe Staff

Antawani Wright Davis was on his bicycle, logged in and ready to make food deliveries for the online service DoorDash, when he was hit and killed by a dump truck in Dorchester last fall.

Because Wright Davis, 19, was an independent contractor, there was no investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, unlike in most workplace fatalities. And because he wasn’t technically an employee of DoorDash, his family wasn’t entitled to monetary compensation or other support.

Wright Davis is among a growing legion of independent contractors and temp workers with few if any employment protections, and one of at least two such workers killed on the job in Massachusetts last year, according to a report released Thursday by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, known as MassCOSH. Overall, 74 people in the state lost their lives because of work-related accidents and illnesses in 2017 — an 11-year high, reflecting a nationwide rise in worker deaths — and contractor and temp fatalities are expected to grow as companies rely more heavily on them.


Young people in particular are at risk because there are so many of them working as contractors in the burgeoning gig economy, said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH.

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“You’re injured or hurt on the job, it’s your problem,” she said. “It’s part of the changing nature of work. The workers are just seeing the raw end of every deal.”

A separate report out Thursday from the AFL-CIO detailing on-the-job deaths found that Massachusetts had a 57 percent increase between 2015 and 2016 — a jump second only to Alaska — driven in part by work-related opioid overdoses.

Nationwide, 5,190 people were killed on the job in 2016, the latest data available, and 856 were independent contractors — a 58 percent rise since 2011, according to the AFL-CIO report. The job fatality rate for all self-employed workers, including independent contractors, is 13.1 per 100,000 workers, more than four times the rate among those with traditional employment arrangements.

An additional 50,000 to 60,000 workers across the country are estimated to die every year from occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.


The MassCOSH report, which includes 2017 numbers and uses slightly different data, shows that worker deaths in the state have risen steadily since 2012, as the economy improved and more people joined the labor force.

The jump in 2016 was likely caused in part by a dramatic rise in overdose deaths caused by the opioid epidemic, Sugerman-Brozan said. The number of workplace overdoses in Massachusetts jumped from 6 in 2015 to 27 in 2016; workplace suicides also increased, from 5 to 18. (The 2017 figures on workplace suicides and overdoses have not been finalized, so MassCOSH doesn’t include those categories in its latest report, as the AFL-CIO does.)

Higher rates of fatal on-the-job overdoses are found among workers with the highest rates of injuries, according to MassCOSH, including construction workers and laborers, who may turn to painkillers after an injury to go back to work, especially if they don’t have paid sick time and fear losing their job.

Of the 74 deaths in Massachusetts last year chronicled by MassCOSH — up from 70 in 2016 — 64 were fatal injuries at work, in addition to 10 firefighters who died from work-related disease. The construction industry accounted for one-third of the workers killed on the job; transportation-related incidents were the leading cause of death. All but 9 of the fatal injuries last year were men; 11 were immigrants.

A number of worker protections related to health and safety have been repealed or rolled back during the Trump administration, including rules that required federal contractors to disclose labor violations and mandated that employers keep accurate records of injuries for five years.


In Massachusetts, on the other hand, a number of worker safeguards have been put in place in the past year. Pregnant workers are now protected under state law, public sector workers are covered by OSHA health and safety regulations, and corporations can now be fined up to $250,000, increased from $1,000, when they are found liable for manslaughter.

‘You’re injured or hurt on the job, it’s your problem. It’s part of the changing nature of work.’

Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH 

Still, as the number of temps and independent contractors without traditional employment protections rises, the workforce is increasingly vulnerable.

One of the temp workers killed on the job last year was Leezandra Aponte, 36, who was killed during her first shift at the Lynnway Auto Auction in Billerica when an employee lost control of the vehicle he was driving and accelerated into a crowd, killing five people. Temp workers tend to have fewer protections than permanent employees, leaving them without access to health care or workers’ compensation insurance.

Aponte’s brother, Orlando Aponte, said the temp agency ended up covering his sister’s funeral expenses and paying $140 a week to help provide for her now-15-year-old daughter — but only after he hired a lawyer to compel them to do so. TrueBlue Inc., the parent company of PeopleReady, the staffing agency that employed Aponte, did not return a call seeking comment.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s annual “Dirty Dozen” report on the most dangerous places to work in the country, released Wednesday, includes the Lynnway Auto Auction, as well as Amazon, where three workers were killed at three different warehouses last year, none in Massachusetts.

Both the temp agency and Lynnway Auto Auction, which had previously been cited for failing to protect workers from vehicle hazards, were fined by OSHA for their role in the accident.

But OSHA does not cover gig economy employees like Wright Davis, who was crushed when the dump truck backed over him and was only identifiable by his dental records.

Deaths of independent contractors are also harder to track because they are less likely to be reported to an agency or covered in the news, according to MassCOSH, and it can be difficult to determine who their employer is.

David Weil, former head of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division under President Obama and now dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, said the growth of the gig economy is problematic because digital platforms like DoorDash and Uber don’t consider themselves to be employers of the workers carrying out their services, and therefore aren’t looking out for them.

“Who’s responsible for the health and safety of this network of people now running around in their cars doing delivery work?” he said. “If the platform isn’t responsible, they’re not going to think about: How do I create a system of safety?”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.