The year was 1970. Worker health and safety were in crisis. Job-related accident rates had been escalating in the years following the end of World War II. Manufacturing had become particularly dangerous. Companies were introducing new industrial chemicals to their workplaces and few understood the substances’ potential effects.
Lawmakers realized they needed to enact some form of federal worker protection, but the parties were split on form and scope. Some legislators wanted hard rules; others thought advisory guidelines would suffice. Some thought the Department of Labor should be in charge of worker health and safety; others advocated for independent research and review. Eventually, after much debate, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which established workplace safety standards and created a new enforcement agency: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
President Nixon signed the Act into law on December 29, 1970—and none too soon. By then, an estimated 14,000 workers had been killed on the job in the course of a single year.
By most accounts, things have improved since. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report on fatal occupational injuries, 5,147 people died at work in 2017—a fraction of the number of annual deaths 50 years ago.
But that doesn’t mean workforce safety problems have been solved. Fatal injuries are only one indicator among many. OSHA continues to report tens of thousands of severe injuries on the job across the United States, sometimes with permanent consequences for workers and their families:
- Every year, millions of workers suffer serious, job-related injuries and illnesses.
- Most general-industry incidents involve slips, trips, and falls, causing 15% of all accidental deaths—the second leading cause behind motor vehicles.
- Each day, more than 14 workers die on the job.
Worryingly, rates of workplace fatalities also appear to be trending upward as of late. Keep in mind that 4,551 people died on the job in 2009 versus 5,147 in 2016—that’s a 13% increase.
Better Safety Demands Collaboration
Fortunately, for those employers aiming to reverse the pattern (that’s you) and bring the annual number of incidents as close as possible to zero, there’s help. From public agencies like OSHA to private risk management providers, you have plenty of worker health and safety resources at your disposal.
In order to take advantage of these resources, however, you must first commit to establishing and maintaining a true safety culture. And that means changing behaviors, adopting new habits, and working together with stakeholders within and outside of your organization.
Consider the Severe Injury Reporting Program, an OSHA initiative that began in 2015. Under the program, employers must report to the administration within 24 hours any work-related amputation, in-patient hospitalization, or loss of an eye. A 2016 evaluation by David Michaels, OSHA’s former Assistant Secretary of Labor, shows that this program has eliminated the potential for many thousands of injuries. Not only does the program help OSHA identify and minimize areas of risk, but also empowers employers to do the same. Prompt, mandatory reporting makes it easy for decision-makers to address risk areas in a straightforward, timely, and cost-effective manner—e.g. by providing workers with fall-protection equipment, installing guard covers over machinery, or clearly marking pathways.
One objective of the program was to encourage employers to work together with OSHA to find ways to eliminate existing hazards and protect multiple workers from the same injury. This collaboration between private and public stakeholders has proved beneficial for worker health and safety. Here are a few real-world examples of how it’s played out:
- After an arm injury in a Chicago plant, an employer installed warning alarms, flashing lights, and metal guards to shield workers’ limbs from moving machinery.
- In Idaho, after a valve cover snapped shut and severed a worker’s fingertips, the organization added a hands-free tool for closing the valve and trained its employees on the procedure.
- After a mechanized blender in a Missouri plant caused an amputation, the employer re-engineered the control system, changed safety interlocks, and enhanced worker training and supervision.
These cases show how employers can proactively prevent injuries and ultimately save money by working together with OSHA and taking swift action.
That said, prompt reporting and collaboration aren’t the only habits your organization can and should adopt. Next time, we’ll be exploring that concept in depth—the power of habit, the science of habit loops, and what it takes to make safety a habit. Be sure to subscribe to our blog so you don’t miss a thing.