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Fatal Injuries Among Volunteer Workers --- United States, 1993--2002

In the United States, an estimated 59 million persons spend a median of 52 hours each year volunteering, most often in religious, educational, youth, or community service organizations; volunteers commonly perform activities such as coaching, campaigning, fundraising, delivering goods, and serving on boards or neighborhood associations (1). Few studies have analyzed fatal injuries to volunteers, and studies have typically focused on a specific volunteer group (e.g., Peace Corps). To characterize fatal injuries among volunteers in the United States, CDC analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI)* for 1993--2002. This report describes the results of that analysis, which indicated that a total of 501 persons died from injuries sustained while volunteering during this period; most often these persons were firefighters and other volunteers who were operating motor vehicles at the time of death. To reduce these fatalities, organizations that rely on volunteers need to provide adequate training (e.g., defensive driving and recognition of evacuation signals) on the basis of well-communicated and enforced safety and health policies.

CFOI classifies employee status into one of seven categories: 1) active-duty armed forces, 2) self-employed, 3) work in family business, 4) work for pay or compensation, 5) volunteer, 6) off-duty police, or 7) not reported. CFOI includes fatalities to volunteer workers if they were performing the same duties or functions as paid employees and they met the CFOI work-relationship definition. For this study, deaths were included if the decedent's employment status category was marked "volunteer." Excluded were deaths resulting from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After numbers of deaths were obtained from CFOI, rates of death among volunteers were calculated by using estimates of median annual volunteer hours worked from the September 2002 Current Population Survey (CPS) volunteer supplemental survey§ (2) and converting those hours to full-time equivalents (FTEs) (i.e., 2,000 hours worked per person per year). CPS defines a volunteer as a person who performed unpaid activities for an organization (3).

During 1993--2002, three occupations accounted for approximately half of the 501 fatal injuries to volunteers: firefighters, 185 deaths (37%); nonconstruction laborers, 35 (7%); and pilots/navigators, 24 (5%). The remaining fatalities (all <4%) were distributed across 13 occupations (Table 1). The single most common volunteer activity at the time of death was firefighting, for which 76 deaths (15%) were recorded. Driving a motor vehicle (e.g. automobile, truck, or farm vehicle) was recorded in 100 (21%) of the fatalities (Table 1). Under the system used by BLS to classify industry sectors, 240 (48%) deaths related to volunteer work occurred in public administration (including firefighting), 154 (31%) in services, and 23 (5%) in agricultural forestry and fishing. Median age of victims at the time of death was 41 years; 436 (87%) of the decedents were male.

The overall rate of death among volunteers was 3.2 per 100,000 FTE population (Table 2). Among 189 volunteer workers aged <34 years, 103 (54%) were volunteer firefighters or firefighting supervisors. The fatal injury rates for volunteer workers aged >35 years were lower when compared with the overall volunteer death rate. The rates among volunteers aged 20--24 and 25--34 years were 7.4 and 6.5 per 100,000 FTE population, respectively, more than twice the overall volunteer death rate and higher than the 1993--2002 average annual fatality rate for all workers aged 20--24 and 25--34 years of 3.5 and 3.9 per 100,000 employed, respectively (2).

Reported by: TW Struttmann, MPSH, BT Oerter, Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; RS Noe, MPH, EIS Officer, CDC.

Editorial Note:

Certain volunteer work, such as firefighting, performing structural repairs, or collecting roadside litter can involve inherently hazardous duties or environments that increase the risk for injury or death. Volunteers engaged in this work might not be sufficiently aware of the dangers involved or any health and safety regulations associated with the work. In addition, supervisors of volunteers might not have the same authority as employers of paid persons to make certain that health and safety regulations are followed. The findings in this report indicate that 28% of all work-related volunteer fatalities occurred while driving or riding in a motor vehicle and that the decedents were most commonly firefighters. To reduce the risk for fatalities, driver training should be provided to volunteer firefighters as described in National Fire Protection Association standard 1451 (4). Other organizations using volunteer drivers should consider adopting policies and providing education that emphasizes safe driving at work (5) and in the community (6).

The findings in this report are subject to at least four limitations. First, CFOI might not capture all volunteer fatalities (i.e., deaths to volunteers in NYC or to persons involved in a motor-vehicle crash that might not have been identified as including a volunteer). Second, although the median number of hours worked by volunteers does not change substantially from year to year (7), calculation of death rates is based on the median hours of volunteer work reported from a single CPS volunteer supplemental survey (September 2002), which uses a sample of the U.S. population. Third, volunteer firefighters, although not typically paid for their work, might receive compensation such as reimbursement for annual medical exams or worker's compensation and retirement benefits. A state-by-state comparison of benefits is available at http://www.nvfc.org. Finally, occupation-specific fatality rates could not be calculated because volunteer occupations in the CPS survey are not categorized by using the same occupation definitions as CFOI.

Organizations that use volunteers should create or maintain policies that incorporate safety education and training into structured volunteer training and orientation. Organizations should designate persons with authority to identify and correct potential hazards and should monitor the activities of volunteers for adherence to their policies. All organizations, whether using volunteers or paid staff, should 1) identify risks and establish safety plans that include administrative measures for enforcement, 2) implement any necessary engineering controls, and 3) provide workers with any needed personal protective equipment (8). To identify risks to firefighters, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health operates an ongoing Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program that investigates deaths among firefighters, including volunteer firefighters.

References

  1. Borass S. Volunteerism in the United States. Monthly Labor Review. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics; August 2003:3--11. Available at http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2003/08/art1full.pdf.
  2. US Department of Labor. Number, percent, and rate of fatal occupational injuries by selected worker characteristics. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2005. Available at http://www.bls.gov/iif.
  3. US Department of Labor. Current Population Survey: design and methodology. Technical Paper 63rv. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2002. Available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/tp63rv.pdf.
  4. National Fire Protection Association. NFPA 1451: standard for a fire service vehicle operations training program. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association; 1997. Available at http://www.nfpa.org.
  5. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Work-related roadway crashes---challenges and opportunities for prevention. Cincinnati, OH: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; 2003. NIOSH publication no. 2003-119. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2003-119.
  6. Zaza S, Briss PA, Harris KW, eds. Motor vehicle occupant injuries [chapter 8]. In: The guide to community preventive services. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2005.
  7. US Department of Labor. Volunteering in the United States, 2004. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor; 2004. Available at ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/news.release/volun.txt.
  8. US Department of Labor. Job hazard analysis. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration; 2002. Available at http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3071.pdf.

* By using death certificates, worker's compensation reports, state and federal agency records, and other supporting documents, CFOI collects data on all traumatic occupational fatalities in the 50 states and District of Columbia to determine worker demographics and the circumstances and causes of the fatality. CFOI data files provided to CDC do not include New York City.

Available at http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfdef.htm.

§ Current Population Survey (CPS), sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau and BLS, is a multistage, stratified sample of approximately 60,000 households that provides current information on the labor force and demographic characteristics of the U.S. population. CPS includes the civilian, noninstitutionalized population aged >16 years. Response rate for the 2002 CPS survey was 92% (CPS, unpublished data, 2005). Volunteer supplemental surveys were conducted in 1989 and 2002--2004. This analysis used the 2002 volunteer survey to calculate rates. Response rate for the volunteer supplemental survey 2002 was 88% (CPS, unpublished data, 2005). Additional information is available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/tp63rv.pdf.

Table 1

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Table 2

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Date last reviewed: 8/3/2005

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