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Census Workers Face Safety Pitfalls

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The challenge seems inviting: Join the Census Bureau and help take the national head-count!

For some, this is dangerous business. One enumerator was killed by a pack of dogs and other census-takers have been shot at, encountered slammed doors and fallen while retreating from angry, uncooperative people.

This week, Census officials reiterated that the safety of its employees was of ``paramount importance'' — even if it means not getting the job done right away.

``We've sent out as strong a signal that we possibly can that the first concern we have is the safety of our census-takers,'' Census Director Kenneth Prewitt said at a news conference. ``We have census-takers in difficult situations, of course, especially now when we are down to the last cases.''

In the current door-to-door phase of the count, enumerators still have about 900,000 of the country's 120 million households left to contact, residents who have not yet returned a Census 2000 form.

Beside the woman killed by dogs, six other U.S. Census workers have died on the job this year, five in auto accidents and one because of a stroke. Agency officials could not immediately say how many have been injured.

Authorities in Nashville, Ind., say it appeared 71-year-old Dorothy Stewart was trying to count the residents of a one-story log cabin when dogs attacked her. She died of multiple injuries. Brown County sheriff's deputies arrived Saturday to find Stewart's body about 3 feet from the home's front door, surrounded by more than 20 dogs.

The driveway leading up to the house is posted with ``Beware of Dog'' and ``No Trespassing'' signs.

Prosecutor Jim Oliver said he has not ruled out filing criminal charges against the dogs' owners, and is continuing his investigation.

Officials at the Census Bureau's national office in Suitland, Md., called Stewart's death an isolated, but tragic incident. They could not recall an incident similar to her death, but said workers are warned about risks.

``They go through training which talks about potential dangers, that if you feel uncomfortable, you leave the situation,'' said Jerry Stahl, spokesman for the Charlotte, N.C., regional Census office. ``But there's not extensive self-defense training or something of that nature.''

Since most census-taker jobs are part-time, they do not have benefits, but are covered under workers' compensation guidelines, Stahl said.

Enumerators who feel unsafe can refer cases to supervisors. It is up to local Census offices to determine whether workers should be sent out in pairs for safety's sake in some areas, and some local managers have asked police departments to monitor blocks where census-takers are working, Prewitt said.

Across the country, those in the field say safety isn't a great concern, whether they work in high-crime neighborhoods or rural areas. Some go to unusual lengths to complete the task — like census-takers in Maine who hitched rides on lobster boats to reach isolated island homes, or workers in upstate New York who used snowmobiles to traverse roads left otherwise impassible by snow.

``In general, the job is fairly safe,'' said Nelson Bofford of Lake Luzerne, N.Y., who worked as an enumerator in upstate New York. ``But I believe the training was pretty good. They went out of their way to make sure you are properly trained before you get out.''

Other enumerators say they've been pleasantly surprised by the responses they get at the door.

``One person offered me pie one time,'' said Michael Zdan, a census-taker from Bear Creek, Pa.
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