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Safety stalled?

September 2, 2011

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With the recent release of preliminary workplace fatality figures, the data indicates safety efforts may have stalled.

The preliminary fatality figures from fiscal year 2010 (4,547) are nearly identical to the revised count (.pdf file) from the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the past three years, preliminary figures have increased an average of 3 percent after the data is revised, BLS said. If this trend continues, the figure could see an increase of about 136 fatalities in the revision early next year – not the best sign for safety advocates.

However, this increase in fatalities was not altogether unexpected. Several experts I have spoken with previously for articles about workplace fatalities and the recession suggested once the economy ramps up, more people will go back to work and, as a result, more people unfortunately will die on the job. A couple of years ago when the recession was in full swing, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis warned of this herself, stating that the Department of Labor would have to “step up our vigilance, particularly as the economy regains momentum.”

But a better figure for gauging efforts to reduce on-the-job deaths is the fatality rate, which has steadily dropped from 4.2 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2006 to 4.0 in 2007, 3.7 in 2008 and 3.5 in 2009. However, the downward trend ended in 2010, when the fatality rate remained at 3.5. When the revised numbers come out, at best, the rate could go down a tick and, at worst, the rate could actually increase. Either way, these preliminary figures indicate the needle didn’t move much in 2010 when it comes to workplace fatalities – and that should be a cause of concern for safety advocates.

“A statistical plateau of worker fatalities is not an achievement but evidence that this nation’s effort to protect workers is stalled,” American Society of Safety Engineers President Terrie S. Norris said in a press release about the new BLS figures. “These statistics call for nothing less than a new paradigm in the way this nation protects workers.”

Norris suggests politics may be the cause of stalled efforts to advance worker protections. That assertion is hard to disagree with, given the toxic atmosphere surrounding Washington at the moment.

Far too often, simple, good ideas to improve workplace safety (such as revising permissible exposure limits or requiring workplaces have an effective safety and health program) are caught up in the political games.

Is safety cheap? No, but neither is losing an employee to a workplace incident. A middle ground can be found where effective and improved safety measures can be implemented without exorbitant costs.

Let’s hope the various sides can find a way to work together, or else we’re going to keep losing too many good people who are simply doing their job.

The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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