The continuing trend
Although spotting trends from one year to the next can be difficult, there is no denying the distinct downward trend in injuries and illness rates in the past six years, or even in the past 15. Starting at a rate of 8.9 workplace injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time employees in 1992, cases dropped to 7.5 in 2001. When OSHA changed its recordkeeping requirements in 2002, the rate was 5.3 cases per 100 employees, which decreased to 4.2 in 2007, according to an October 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Several specific industries have seen a downward trend as well. Fatalities at work dropped from a rate of 4.0 per 100,000 employees in 2006 to 3.7 in 2007, according to preliminary BLS data.
Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao attributed the continuing decline to the Department of Labor’s efforts. “The 21 percent decline in the workplace injury and illness rate over the past six years and a 4.5 percent decline over the past year show the effectiveness of the strategy of targeted enforcement coupled with prevention through compliance assistance to promote a culture of safety in the workplace,” Chao said in a statement.
Some in the industry agree with Chao, and see it reflected in the field. “I would tend to agree that, over time, safety has become more integrated into the culture of many companies,” said Paul Bartleson, senior director of safety and health at Plain, WI-based Kraemer Brothers. Several programs exist, both on the federal and state level, in which industry and OSHA can work together through training and communication to help drive incidence numbers down, according to Bartleson.
Russell Bensman, a staff engineer at the Minster Machine Co. in Minster, OH, believes OSHA is more willing to work with the employer as a teacher or assistant in helping correct problems rather than being a “bulldog” who simply fines a company when violations are discovered. This has helped foster more employer responsibility, he said.
Safety equipment also has become cheaper and more readily available over the years. Additionally, machines being used now are, more often than not, automated rather than manual, the latter of which can lead to more injuries because of more user interaction with moving parts, according to Bensman.
As for the future of the downward trend, OSHA in late 2007 issued its long-awaited rule requiring employers to pay for their workers’ personal protective equipment. That will also surely have an impact, said Carl Griffith, safety and quality director for Trench-It Inc. in Union, IL.