By Philip Joens / Columbia Daily Tribune
Midland Oil driver Tim Martinie fought his way Friday from Jefferson City to Hy-Vee on West Broadway in snowy conditions.
A 15-year veteran with the company, Martinie must worry about his 12,000-pound truck jack-knifing or sliding off the road during the slick weather. Still, other drivers bother him more than anything Mother Nature throws at him.
“The worst part of driving in this weather is trying to avoid everybody else,” Martinie said. “Your driving skills come into place easing into the clutch, then your senses are completely heightened.”
Experienced truckers like Martinie do everything possible to avoid workplace accidents, no matter the condition. Overall, workplace accidents are decreasing, but as trucking, construction and other industries face record-low levels of unemployment and severe worker shortages, severe workplace injuries for new employees are rising.
As unemployment decreases, more employers are increasingly hiring workers with less experience in hazardous conditions. The state’s workforce has increased by only about 8,000 since 2014 but the number of people unemployed has decreased by 86,000.
For the state’s largest workers compensation underwriter, Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance Company based in Columbia, new hires made up about 28 percent of spending on critical injuries in 2015. Over the past two years, new hires accounted for about 60 percent of the company’s payouts on critical injuries.
“People are getting killed,” CEO Jim Owen said. “People are having really serious injuries when they’re new hires.”
In trucking nationwide, about 475,000 large trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds are involved in traffic crashes per year, resulting in 5,360 fatalities and 142,000 injuries annually, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Still, by and large, trucking companies do an excellent job of keeping their employees safe.
As Martinie alluded, drivers of other cars cause about 70 percent of accidents and account for 74 percent of fatalities in crashes between automobiles and truck drivers, according to OSHA.
Martinie’s boss, Jeff Spainhower with Jefferson City-based fuels distributor Midland Oil, said one of the best ways to avoid serious workplace accidents is to hire veteran employees. All Midland Oil employees must go through hazardous materials training required by the Transportation and Safety Administration before they get a commercial driver’s license that allows them to carry hazardous materials.
Most of the company’s 30 drivers had at least three to five years of experience when they were hired. After being hired, drivers spend between two and six months riding with another driver, Spainhower said.
Like other trucking companies, Midland Oil is facing a shortage of drivers, though Spainhower said the company has not had trouble filling positions.
“We have a pretty good reputation among drivers,” Spainhower said.
Workforce watchdogs warn trouble could be on the horizon for the trucking industry. Between 2018 and 2028 a shortage of truck drivers will grow from 60,000 to almost 200,000, insurance investment management firm Conning & Company said in a February study. Conning found that 56 percent of respondents to a survey whose companies do not hire inexperienced drivers are considering doing so because of the shortage.
“The cost of lowering hiring standards can be significant in the long-run when accounting for increased insurance premiums and accidents,” the study said.
Problems in the trucking industry are not unique, Owen said.
Missouri Employers Mutual provides workers compensation insurance policies to more than 12,000 businesses around the state. In December, Missouri’s unemployment rate fell to 3 percent, the lowest level recorded since the Missouri Department of Economic Development began keeping track of the statistic in 1976.
Along with transportation, construction is among the most dangerous sectors in the state, Owen said.
The trend of severe injuries for new employees is occurring as workplace injuries are decreasing, Owen added.
In 2017 the rate of workplace injuries fell to 2.8 recordable cases per 100 workers, less than half of the number in 2003, according to occupational and health trade magazine EHS Today.
Workplace injuries place strain on the economy. Each year workplace injuries cost society $151 billion in lost productivity, wages, and medical and administrative expenses, according to EHS Today.
In 2018, injuries from overexertion, like muscle strains and back problems caused by lifting too much weight, were the most common workplace injury nationwide and cost workers compensation policy holders $13.7 billion, according to data from Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.
Safety systems can help.
Missouri Trucking Association CEO Tom Crawford said inward- and outward-facing camera systems exist that both watch drivers and watch traffic. Other computerized systems can track every movement made by a driver, Crawford said. Radar warning systems also exist that can automatically help drivers avoid crashes, Crawford said.
Some drivers find the systems invasive, but the systems can also help exonerate drivers when inevitable accidents occur, Crawford said.
“There’s a little unease,” Crawford said. “I think anyone would not like somebody looking over their shoulder while driving.”
Safety systems are costly and can place burdens on small businesses like Midland Oil. Large, long-haul trucking companies will generally have lane departure systems in truck cabs.
Small, short-haul companies will put cheaper cameras in cabs, Spainhower said. Midland is in the midst of putting cameras in cabs, but they are not yet in trucks, Spainhower said.
“It’s not necessarily cheap and not every firm like ours puts it on,” Spainhower said.
Since the Great Recession, automation has eaten away at jobs in blue collar fields like manufacturing, mining, retail and countless other industries. Given this shift in the economy, many people end up taking jobs for which they do not meet the qualifications, Owen said.
“They could be qualified for another job, but that job no longer exists,” Owen said. “So now they’re filling a job for which they are not qualified.”
The gig economy, with companies like Uber and Grubhub, hires fleets of independent contractors to move people, cars and food.
Typically contractors have higher accident rates than traditional employees, Conning said. Self-employed contractors also die at a rate of 13.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers while on the job, compared to a rate of 3 deaths per 100,000 workers for regular employees, according to Conning.
Self-employed people lack safety training critical to staying safe while working.
“That’s a big part of this problem,” Owen said. “You don’t have a place to go into and get safety and training, and safety is usually the first thing you get when you go to a large employer.”
Safety is the biggest concern for truckers, Crawford and Spainhower said. Employers can do simple things like use scissor lifts instead of ladders and install slip-free flooring to help workers stay safe, Owen said.
“Every day should be about safety,” Owen said. “If you make safety the No. 1 thing in your company every day, all other productivity goes up.”
If you have suffered a work-related injury or illness, Northland Injury Law can help ensure you get full and fair compensation under the law. The attorneys at Northland Injury law are experienced in navigating the ins and outs of the workers’ compensation process and their experience can help you with a complicated claim. For a free consultation, please call (816) 455-7600.