State of Safety 2010

Injuries, fatalities decline during recession, but challenges remain

By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

  • 2008 followed a historical trend in which injury and fatality rates drop during recession periods.
  • With the recession, some companies have focused on improving safety to reduce the costs of injuries.
  • Experts are warning that an increase in occupational injury and illness rates may follow a recovering economy.

Times have been tough. The nation has seen unemployment rise to 10.2 percent, its highest level since 1983. The financial markets have fallen to levels not seen in more than a decade. Nationally known companies have shut their doors. The recession that began in December 2007 has been setting all kinds of records, and most were not good. But one bit of positive news has come through.

Last year, Safety+Health spoke with experts about what effect the recession might have on workplace deaths and injuries. The data is in: 2008 had the lowest number of workplace fatalities on record (5,071, according to preliminary figures) and the lowest occupational injury and illness rate (3.9 cases per 100 full-time workers) for private industry.

However, there are a few caveats to these figures. There is also the question of what happens when the economy recovers and more people go back to work. “I don’t think it’s beyond reason to expect some type of rebound” in injury data, said Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council.

Economic impact

In August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary figures on occupational deaths for 2008 showed a 10 percent decline from the 5,657 workplace fatalities recorded in 2007. According to BLS, economic factors likely played a role in the decrease – the average hours worked at the national level fell 1 percent in 2008.

This has been the case historically. Every recession period since the early 1970s has been accompanied by a statistically significant drop in occupational injury and illness incidence rates.

The general consensus on why this coupling occurs is threefold:

  • There is less work available, so less work is done and therefore less chance of injury.
  • Workers most likely to be laid off are those with less seniority and experience; they also are most likely to be injured.
  • To stay on the job, workers may be less likely to report minor injuries, leading to underreporting.

In fact, the recession’s reach extends to people responsible for collecting occupational injury data. BLS said budget constraints at some government agencies that provide the documents used in compiling the census of fatal occupational injuries has delayed the receipt and processing of the documents. On average over the past two years, the preliminary number of workplace deaths increased by 153 cases. Because of the delays for the 2008 count, the updated figure could go even higher. BLS is scheduled to release the updated fatality figures for 2008 this April.

Safety impact

One area that has been hit especially hard by the recession is construction. From the beginning of the recession in December 2007 to this past October, the construction industry shed 1.6 million jobs, according to preliminary figures from a November BLS Employment Situation report. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of construction fatalities fell to a preliminary figure of 969 in 2008 – a 20 percent drop – from 1,204 in 2007.

Paul Bartleson, senior director of safety and health at Plain, WI-based general contractor Kraemer Brothers, is not surprised by the decline in construction deaths, which make up about nearly one-fifth of all private industry fatalities. “It’s been a tough 18 months,” he said. “I would have assumed that with construction volume being down overall, that construction fatalities would follow that trend.” And it is not only construction. The transportation and warehousing industry, which saw a loss of 399,000 jobs, had 762 fatalities, a 14 percent drop from 2007, according to BLS. Retail and wholesale trade lost 926,000 and 397,000 jobs, respectively; deaths in retail trade fell 17 percent and wholesale trade fell 15 percent. The professional and business services industry lost 1.4 million employees and its death total fell 19 percent.

Not every industry saw such a correlation. The education and health services industry grew by 804,000 jobs and still saw an 8 percent drop in workplace fatalities. The manufacturing industry lost 2.1 million jobs, but its death total went slightly higher to 404 in 2008 (included are the 14 workers who died in the sugar refinery dust explosion in Georgia) from 400 in 2007. Overall, the preliminary fatality rate for 2008 is 3.6 per 100,000 full-time workers, down from 4.0 in 2007.

While the recession has been linked with fewer workplace deaths and injuries, it also may force companies to shore up costs where they can. At American Foods Group, a meat processor headquartered in Green Bay, WI, upper management’s interest in occupational safety has grown during the recession, according to Hank Bongers, company vice president of environmental, health and safety. “When the economy’s down like that, the company has to look at ways for reducing any types of losses,” he said. “So the emphasis on reducing injuries has been fairly heavy.”

This greater emphasis on safety has allowed American Foods Group to provide supervisors with more training, such as OSHA 10-hour courses, and increase the awareness of safety issues for the more-experienced employees. As a result, the severity of injuries at the company’s facilities has declined and workers’ compensation costs have been reduced, Bongers said.

Recovery impact

A slump will not last forever. With signs of the recession slowing, recovery may not be too far away. But with recovery comes its own complications.

“When you start pulling out of this, that means growth, and growth brings in additional employees with less experience,” Bongers said. “The challenge there needs to be ahead of the curve and make sure they understand the safety risk.”

In every recent recession but one, injury and illness rates rose following the recession period (changes in OSHA recordkeeping requirements in 2002 make a comparison to earlier years – including the 2001 recession – difficult). Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis warned of this, noting in a press release the declining worker fatalities “prompts us to step up our vigilance, particularly as the economy regains momentum.”

Part of that stepped-up vigilance under Solis’ watch is an OSHA National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping launched in September. A recent Government Accountability Office report showed occupational injury and illness data received from employers may not be accurate. GAO found some workers may not report injuries out of fear of losing their jobs, and some employers may not record injuries to keep workers’ comp costs down. (Read “An ‘alarming’ report” on page 30 for more details.)

The recordkeeping program seeks to “identify and correct” underrecorded or incorrectly recorded workplace injuries and illnesses. Industries with high injury and illness rates will be targeted in the NEP, and inspections will include records reviews, employee interviews, and limited workplace safety and health inspections. If underreporting is occurring, as some critics have suggested, the NEP could lead to data indicating an increase in occupational injuries and illnesses.

Other areas where OSHA will be “stepping up” are stronger enforcement and new regulations. Both Solis and assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab have not been shy about turning OSHA into a stronger regulatory enforcement agency and suggesting the need to change the agency’s penalty structure. But what effect will that change have on occupational injuries and illnesses, if any? “I don’t know if you can consistently improve safety by filing citations,” Bongers said. He said he preferred partnerships that OSHA developed in which people exchanged ideas on how to keep workers safe.

Bartleson noted the success Kraemer Brothers has had working cooperatively with OSHA, calling it a “successful strategy.” While Bartleson said such collaboration with the agency is one he does not want to see retracted in favor of too-strong enforcement, he acknowledged some may respond better to the stick than the carrot. “I think it depends on the company,” Bartleson said. “Some companies may not respond to outreach efforts, and for those, [OSHA is] left with nothing but enforcement.”

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