I’ve covered safety-related issues for a long time, and for more than a decade, that coverage has focused in part on OSHA. It’s hard to imagine that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn’t created until the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s.
Worker safety issues have been an issue much earlier than the 1970s, of course, but the federal government had only an ancillary role in worker safety before then.
Over the past two decades, the policy on safety depended largely on which political party was in office. The second Bush Administration favored voluntary compliance, championing the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), which had been a part of OSHA’s original legislation. The Obama Administration pursued tougher enforcement of unsafe workplaces.
The pendulum of safety is swinging back toward encouraging workplace safety as a matter of operational policy as opposed to enforcing safety as a matter of law. There are merits to both policies, success stories on both sides, and examples of failures in both stances. The great truth about workplace safety is that the federal government can neither patrol every plant nor provide enough incentive to ensure that incidents will not occur.
The other great truth about safety is that the Top 10 cited OSHA violations are the same, year after year. The chart looks at the last four years of OSHA violations (the first number represents the OSHA standard in violation, and corresponds to the 2016 results):
You have to admire the consistency of the American workplace.
There’s another measure of workplace injuries and incidents, however. Liberty Mutual Insurance, which long has been among the champions of workplace safety, uses a slightly different calculation. In January, the company released 2017 Workplace Safety Index—the top 10 serious non-fatal workplace injuries based on total cost of the employer (defined as injuries that cause a worker to miss six or more days of work).
The total cost of all such injuries in 2017 was $59.9 billion—horrific on its face, but actually down $2 billion from 2016. As with the OSHA data, not much changes from year to year.
“Workplace injuries impact both employees and employers. Injured employees face potential physical, emotional, and financial harm,” said Debbie Michel of Liberty Mutual in a press release on the company website that announced the Index results. “Employers face the direct costs of workplace injuries – medical care related to the accident and some portion of an injured employee’s pay – and the indirect costs, including hiring temporary employees, lost productivity, and quality disruptions.”
Overexertion on the job accounts for 23% of injuries at a cost of $13.8 billion. Slips, trips, and falls on the same level accounted for another $10.7 billion in costs, and falls to another level cost $5.5 billion.
So you can measure safety by cost, or measure it by types of incidents. You can ramp up voluntary compliance by pointing to the financial cost of safety, or crack down with enforcement by pointing to the human cost. Yet, as the empirical data shows, we are no closer to solving the fundamental issue of safety.
That’s because safety is not an agency issue, or an insurance company issue. It cannot be managed by either compliance or enforcement, and it cannot be qualified by data or dollars. Safety is a daily exercise. It begins with a personal commitment to work in safety every day, and to do all you can to ensure others around you do as well. You can look out for yourself, and for others, and still perform your work in safety.
Safety is singular. It begins and ends with you, because if every single worker were committed to safety every single day, this would no longer be an annual story, based on numbers.
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