Safety in America: A Mixed Report Card

When I talk to a lot of the most experienced HSE professionals about the next steps in improving safety, a surprising number of them are not sure where we go from here.   We have made a lot of progress.  The profession has never been as highly educated and respected within individual organizations.  We are spending more on safety and we know more than we ever did about all of the tools that belong in a safety toolbox.  But you have the sense from talking to the experts that the pace of improvement is slowing.   Simply put, when we had a lot more accidents, instituting a new safety approach was likely to produce great results, but now that we have gotten down to just a few accidents, addressing those last few is expensive, time-consuming and frustrating.  And some of our assumptions about the relationship between injuries and fatalities are being called into question.

The latest statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on injuries and fatalities point that out.   There is a very good overview of the injury statistics in Insurance Journal magazine called What Latest U.S. Statistics on Nonfatal Workplace Injuries Reveal.  The headline news is that workplace injuries continue to drop.

The blue line at the top shows that the Total Recordables Cases (TRC) has dropped for the 12th straight year.  That is progress.  For comparisons sake, local government, which has a much less rigorous approach to safety, has a TRC of 5.6.  So that is really good news.   But it is flattening out.

Now look at the red line.  That’s the DART rate, the rate that looks at days away from work, and it has been relatively flat since 2009.  Progress yes, but not the kind we had been experiencing.

Now look at fatalities. The results are disturbing.

Apologies for the blurry graph.  What it shows is that after falling since 1994 fatalities have risen for the past four years, up to 4821 in 2014. True, the workforce has grown and, if you normalize the data, it shows that fatalities had been somewhat flat for the past few years.  But in 2014, the rate per 100,000 workers went up.  That is a trend we need to worry about.

What does this tell us?  Here are five takeaways:

  1. The “easy” solutions are already in place – Our safety meetings, our JSA’s and all of our safety policies and procedures got us to this point.  They contributed to a substantial and impressive decrease in the number of on-the-job injuries.  However, we are somewhat stuck and we need to become more creative and open to other approaches.

  2. The numbers of injuries and fatalities are no longer paired – Most safety professionals are familiar with Heinrich’s law, developed in the 1930’s, which said that for every major injury accident, companies may expect 29 minor injury accidents and 300 “accidents” with no injury.   Statistical analysis over the last few years have found this to still be a valuable ratio.  It supports the idea that minor and major injuries (or deaths) are connected and if you reduce minor accidents you will also reduce deaths.   What these latest numbers show us is that that connection may not be a strong as we think.  My injury rate may fall because I have a great slip, trip and fall program, but it doesn’t help protect an electrician from dying in an arc flash.

  3. We need to question the effectiveness of some of the tools we are using – Online contractor evaluations and training programs have seen spectacular growth in the last five years, but that coincides with the stall-out in injury reductions and the increase in fatalities.  Those tools may be effective, but the numbers show they aren’t stand-alone solutions.  They should enhance or safety initiatives, not replace them.

  4. We need to look at the changing landscape of hazards and risk – This may be the real key.  The rise in smartphone use and other distractions is clearly impacting driving safety.  Companies are starting to see this as their biggest unaddressed hazard, but it has proven very hard to solve.  Prescription painkillers and opioids are increasingly a concern.  Traditional approaches to drug use may need to adapt for a world where more workers are impaired by legal prescription drugs.  

  5. We could stand to lose a few pounds too – Ok, maybe this one is a stretch, but obesity and its companion problems can affect injuries, balance and stamina.  We are also part of an aging workforce and with age comes a change in the risk level of existing hazards.  

On injuries, there is still a lot of room for improvement on safety, but the race gets harder the closer you get to the finish line.  On fatalities, we need to tackle the problem now before it gets worse.   We have our work cut out for us.


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