VENTNOR — If Michael Einwechter needs a reminder that his construction job ranks among New Jersey’s most dangerous, he can just feel the 8-inch scar on his right leg.
Einwechter severed an artery when the safety guard on his circular saw got snagged by a piece of loose wood while working on a house in Ventnor last year.
“I looked down and it was amazement, if anything. I couldn’t believe I could see the inside of my leg. Then I fainted,” he said.
Fortunately, he had trained his employees at Ventnor’s Schallus and Sons Construction in first aid. They applied a tourniquet and kept his leg elevated until an ambulance arrived. After 24 stitches and 12 staples, Einwechter soon was back to work.
“We take risks every day, whether it’s working high on structures or doing foundations. You do take those risks. But we also take precautions in the way we prepare,” he said.
Every day in America, more than a dozen workers never come home from their jobs: victims of falls, accidents and other workplace calamities. Some jobs in New Jersey and elsewhere are especially dangerous: construction, commercial fishing and tree trimming.
More than 3 million workers sustain illness or injury from their jobs annually, according to federal numbers. Regulators are taking steps to reduce these risks, particularly in the construction industry.
Building contractors accounted for 12 percent of all on-the-job fatalities in 2011, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
About 1 in 4 work-related fatalities occurs on roadways, either in accidents between vehicles or roadside mishaps in which workers are struck by passing traffic.
The vast majority of workers killed, 89 percent, were men. Older workers have the highest rate of fatalities. And workers 65 and over see the highest rate of fatal accidents compared to other segments of the work force.
The jobs with the highest rates of fatalities included commercial fishing, roofing, steel working and forestry.
Jason Pilla, of Egg Harbor City, owns Jason Pilla Tree Specialist LLC, a tree-trimming business in Galloway Township. Pilla said he is always looking for safer ways to do an inherently dangerous job.
Pilla said investing in reliable equipment goes a long way toward improving safety.
“Back in the day, they had a lot of junk. Now they have chippers with safety devices and bucket trucks with safety fall devices,” he said.
Pilla, who has 10 employees, gets safety training as part of his New Jersey certification and through trade groups. But he acknowledges the risks inherent to his job. “We’re constantly in the air with ropes and chainsaws.”
In February, a tree trimmer was struck by a limb and died in Belleville Township, Essex County. In November, tree trimmers in Monmouth and Middlesex counties were killed felling trees.
Pilla said trees damaged during storms such as the June 30 “derecho” in Atlantic County and Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29 create especially dangerous conditions for tree trimmers. Limbs and trunks bent by the storm can spring back in unpredictable ways.
“Storm work is the worst work. It dramatically increases the risk when you’re dealing with storm damage. It’s some of the most precarious and dangerous work we’ll do,” he said.
Pilla said urban forestry in many ways is more dangerous than cutting timber deep in the woods.
“Our insurance costs are phenomenal. Not all insurance companies will take you on. They don’t even want to underwrite you,” he said.
Falls are especially common in construction and represent the leading cause of death in the industry, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA.
Sadly, South Jersey is no stranger to these accidents. On March 27, Hamilton Township contractor Jorge Barralaga, owner of Barralaga’s Roofing & Siding, died after falling 20 feet from a rooftop in Ocean City.
Nationwide, fatal accidents have been on the decline for two decades, from 6,632 in 1994 to 4,693 in 2011, including 90 deaths in New Jersey. About 750 construction workers nationwide died on the job that year.
OSHA launched a campaign last year to promote the use of safety harnesses and improve training for construction workers. The agency considers fall deaths to be completely preventable. Employers are obligated by law to provide safety gear for workers performing jobs 6 feet above the floor or ground.
A federal study last year by researcher J. Paul Leigh found that occupational injuries and illnesses cost Americans $250 billion per year — more than diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. And workman’s compensation covered just one-quarter of these costs.
“You have a factor of 10 or more fatalities from illness exposure to hazardous materials compared to fatal injuries like falling or getting caught in machinery,” said engineer Deane Smith, of Moorestown, a consultant on health and safety issues through his business, South Jersey Safety.
For some clients, improving worker safety could be a matter of requiring safety glasses or changing the way some welding is performed to ensure proper ventilation, he said. Other risks are more subtle.
“In manufacturing operations, I design production lines so people have greater accommodations for their personal sizes so they have better postures to do manual tasks,” he said.
Ventnor’s Einwechter said his employees are keenly aware of the long-term health risks associated with their jobs, particularly when it comes to toxic mold.
“Especially in dealing with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, we’re dealing with a lot of mold in our business. We’re going into some houses that haven’t been touched since the storm,” he said.
His employees wear respirators and full-body Tyvek suits when they work around mold-prone homes. The health risks are too great to ignore, he said.
“A simple dust mask can help, but the mold spores can work their way around the mask,” he said. “Preparation is everything in mold removal.”
Contact Michael Miller: