The human aspect of the latest BLS injury numbers

By: Travis Rhoden

Publication: Workplace Safety Regulatory Alert

Date Posted: 12/11/2019

Experts weigh-in, offer practical solutions workplace injuries

Nearly three million workers were injured on the job last year, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s three million fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, spouses, coworkers, and friends who were injured, in many cases severely enough that they couldn’t go to work for a period of time.

That’s the human aspect of the data.

In fact, one could argue that if three million workers were actually injured, at least double that number of people were impacted. When a wife is injured on the job, the kids and the husband suffer, too.

And, so do employers.

In many cases, when an experienced worker is off work because of an injury, a less-experienced worker must take over. This can lead to a noticeable drop in production — not to mention any OSHA recordability or workers’ compensation issues that arise from the injury.

The numbers, overall, did not increase over the past year and remained at the lowest number since 2002 — a fact that OSHA pointed out when asked about the data. However, the numbers didn’t decrease for the first time in several years, which is signaling trouble to some safety advocates.

BLS Incidence Rates 2009-2018

“Stagnant injury rates are unacceptable and a clear call to employers nationwide to take a harder look at their approach to workplace safety and health,” said ASSP President Diana Stegall, CSP, CFPS, ARM, SMS, CPCU. “Incidents that harm workers are occurring far too often in every industry. Most occupational injuries and illnesses are preventable given today’s technologies and proven safety and health strategies.”

Former OSHA leader, and current Professor at the George Washington School of Public Health, Dr. David Michaels, also expressed concern over the current numbers.

“I am concerned about the injury numbers — the overall high numbers should be unacceptable to the nation,” he said. “We know the figure of three million injuries annually is an underestimate. We should be doing more to lower the rate, but instead it is rising — that is deeply concerning.”

Dr. Michaels points to a series of studies commissioned by the BLS, which have concluded that injuries reported by employers do not match up to data in workers’ compensation and other systems, leading to a “significant portion” of injuries that aren’t counted in the BLS data.

This does not mean that employers are willingly under-reporting to the BLS, however. The agency notes that there are many potential causes, including confusion around the different systems that are in place, such as workers’ compensation and OSHA recordability. Further, as an annual survey, the BLS data may also fail to capture injuries or illnesses with a long onset or latency period.

But, what we know for certain is that overall injury rates stalled last year.

Of particular concern, are the rates in the retail industry. Rather than simply stagnate, the injury rate in that industry actually increased — for the first time since BLS began collecting this series of data in 2003.

“Retail was a surprise,” according to former OSHA area director, John Newquist, “I think the newer employees are older. They are more easily subject to ergo injuries.”

Lack of focus on ergonomic issues may be partly to blame for the overall injury numbers.

Stegall suggests that a lot of processes currently in place have been aimed at typical serious injuries, such as those from caught-in and struck-by hazards. These are areas where OSHA has standards. However, that may mean some hazards are being overlooked.

“All of those are important and we have regulations related to those. But, when you look at more of the injuries these days, they are soft tissue,” Stegall says.

“We’re not addressing those because there’s no regulation.”

In fact, sprains, strains, and tears accounted for 34 percent of all the cases with days away from work in 2018. Contusions and tendonitis made up another nine percent.

To ensure all injury causes are accounted for, Stegall suggests that employers look not only at hazards and compliance, but also at the risks that are present.

This is something that was a noticeable point of emphasis in last year’s publication of the ISO 45001-Safety and health management systems standard, the first-ever international standard for managing safety systems. Before that, most existing industry standards, such as the OHSAS 18001 standard, focused on identifying and controlling “hazards.” The new ISO 45001 standard, as well as the newly published ANSI Z10 safety management standard, place a heavy focus on “risk.”

This means, among other things, that employers should proactively look at what’s actually going on in the workplace.

“We only see the work as we’ve imagined it should be, not necessarily as it’s performed,” Stegall says. “We’re not getting the feedback from the workers who do the work day-in and day-out.”

She notes that even in incident investigations, often, employers stop once they figure out what went wrong. Rather than asking the worker to “help me understand what was going on — help me understand the decision that you made,” employers often only see things from one perspective.

“It’s really easy to look back after the fact and say, ‘we should have done X, Y and Z,’” Stegall says. However, she says many employers stop short of actually getting to the heart of why the worker made the decision they did. She suggests asking questions to get information from the worker’s perspective on what was going on and why they made the decision they did based on the information they had available at the time.

Another potential cause for the high injury numbers may be lack of a dedicated safety professional.

“I am seeing HR trying to handle safety without basic safety training like an OSHA 511 class,” said Newquist.

Additionally, employers sometimes have programs that are not implemented fully — they are made for compliance, but not necessarily for the way the work needs to be done.

Further, employers must ensure that the programs that are implemented are maintained.

“Anything from a safety perspective should be living and breathing — it’s never just a one and done,” Stegall says.

“The world of work is changing so quickly, we can’t just say ‘it’s done; it’s on the shelf’. We have to look at that again. It really should be taking a look at things on a regular basis.”

She recommends employers regularly look at such things as the following for potential changes requiring program updates:

  • Equipment
  • Processes
  • Chemicals
  • Employee-base

Even something as simple as a PPE program can be overlooked, which can lead to improper protection, Stegall notes.

“Are we buying personal protective equipment that properly fits the people that we have in our worksite currently — versus 5 or 10 years ago (when the assessment was done)?”

What is the OSHA 511 course?

The OSHA 511 Occupational Safety and Health Standards for General Industry course is a voluntary course offered through authorized OSHA Training Institute Education Centers. The course covers OSHA standards, policies, and procedures in general industry with special emphasis on those areas in general industry which are most hazardous.

Expert advice to keep your workforce safe

ASSP, which represents more than 39,000 occupational safety and health professionals worldwide, recommends that employers implement safety and health management systems and adopt strategies to better protect worker well-being on and off the job. Both can help companies create true safety cultures by shifting from compliance-based approaches to risk-based programs.

In addition, organizations should use next-generation approaches such as Total Worker Health (a term created by NIOSH) to move beyond traditional wellness initiatives and take a broader view of worker well-being.

“There are widespread benefits when a business makes occupational safety and health a priority,” Stegall said. “Not only do workers return home safe to their loved ones, but quality and productivity flourish, helping organizations achieve sustainable growth, meet social responsibilities, and be viewed as employers of choice.”

“We want to send them home BETTER than when they showed up”

One thing Stegall urges employers to think about is that when they hire an employee they aren’t just hiring “one part” of the worker — they are hiring the total worker. If an employee is already susceptible to back problems from an off-the-job issue, putting in ergonomic aids makes sense — not only will it prevent the worker’s back from becoming more of a problem for the company and the worker, but it likely will lead to better productivity and, through training and other techniques, possibly a better home life for the worker, which will ultimately benefit the company.

When employers can help an employee improve his health, the benefits reach far beyond the workplace, which is the theory behind the Total Worker Health movement. It’s also a perfect example of the positive side of the human aspect of workplace safety.

Key to remember: Injury and illness numbers represent real impacts to workers’ lives and employers’ productivity. Employers should remember they are hiring the “whole” workers, not just a part. Safety systems with employee feedback are key, as well as ergonomic interventions.

About the author
Travis Rhoden - EH&S Editor

Travis is a senior editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. He specializes in safety management systems, job hazard analysis, machine guarding, storage rack safety, forklift training and OSHA inspections. 

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