Workplace Fatalities on the Rise

Employers need to promote safety as a core value and not something that competes with production, experts say.
By: | January 24, 2018 • 6 min read

In 2016, workplace fatalities in the U.S. increased by 7 percent over the previous year, according to the Census of 2016 Fatal Occupational Injuries report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That translates to 5,190 employee deaths on the job for the year, representing the highest number of fatalities since 2008.

The news is disappointing, perhaps even “disheartening,” but not really surprising, according to John Dony, director of environmental, health, safety and sustainability at the National Security Council in Itasca, Ill.

“We’ve known about these increases for a while and they’re starting to spiral up, up and up,” says Dony, who is also director of the nonprofit’s Campbell Institute. “They’re unacceptable and show us how much more work we have to do.”

The report paints a harsh reality for employers. Consider that between 2015 and 2016:

  • Overdoses from the non-medical use of drugs and alcohol while on the job rose from 165 to 217, a 32-percent increase;
  • Deaths among workers 55 or older totaled 1,848, a 9.9-percent increase;
  • Deaths among black or African American, non-Hispanics jumped by 18.6 percent, totaling 587 workers;
  • Deaths among Asian, non-Hispanic workers increased by 40.4 percent, totaling 160 deaths;
  • Deaths caused by falls, slips and trips increased by 6 percent, totaling 849 deaths;
  • Transportation incidents remained the most common fatal event, totaling 2,083 deaths;
  • Unintentional workplace deaths, such as exposure to harmful chemicals, increased 5 percent, totaling 4,399 deaths; and
  • Homicides increased 19.9 percent, totaling 500 deaths, the highest since 2010.
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Dony blames the rise in on three factors: the country’s ongoing opioid crisis, an aging employee population and an increase in workplace shootings. Vulnerable workers, including non-native English-speaking workers, may compound the problem, he says, because either they can’t or are afraid to tell a supervisor or boss about an injury they sustained at work. They also may lack healthcare, which could lead them to dismiss the seriousness of their injury or never visit a doctor to treat it.

To help decrease workplace fatalities, he says, HR professionals must move beyond their wellness program that offers activities such as monthly yoga classes that “sound nice.” He says employees must be engaged and co-own health and safety programs and approaches.

He advises employers to also consider appointing select employees as safety, health and environmental ambassadors who could implement a Plan-Do-Act approach that helps control and monitor a company’s risk and exposure to workplace injuries and fatalities.

Although training gaps are common, he says, more often it’s workplace culture that pushes employees into unsafe situations.

“Whether it’s their supervisor, middle management or the CEO, the messaging in that culture is driving something that’s stronger than the strongest possible training you can deliver,” Dony says. “The message needs to be that safety is the core value and not something that competes with production because you’re [working against] a deadline.”

Instituting safety and health programs in the workplace can be “an effective way to prevent and reduce workplace injury and illness,” according to a statement by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. “Focusing on safety benefits employees and [helps] employers to ensure a thriving, productive business. Strong safety programs pay dividends for workers and employers in the long-term.”

Another tip: Ensure that employees report all accidents, even near misses, to management so that potential hazards can be identified and corrected, says Sage Knauft, partner at Walsworth in Orange, Calif.

Then document everything, Knauft says.

“Document that you have safety and drug-testing programs in place and routine checks of machinery or equipment used by employees,” he says, “and that you have all of your maintenance records on machinery and vehicles.”

Companies, particularly large manufacturers or those with a warehouse, can hire a third-party safety vendor to conduct an audit, he says, adding that this proactive step is especially helpful for employers that experience an uptick in the number of accidents despite their prevention efforts.

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Some of the best safety practices can be found in the construction industry, Knauft says, where contractors often conduct a mandatory, weekly safety meeting for all subcontractors and foremen.

“They talk about the job site, what’s going to happen that week and identify potential hazards like an open elevator shaft,” he says, adding that minutes are kept of each meeting. “The emphasis is [creating] a safe workplace as the primary responsibility and subs are required to sign in and attest to the fact that they attended the meeting and [acknowledge] what was specifically was discussed.”

Experts advise HR to follow a similar path when conducting employee-safety meetings. All participants must sign in, verifying that they learned about specific safety practices, so when an accident occurs, the employer can prove that the injured employee attended the meeting that addressed a specific safety practice. This is yet “another layer of protection for employers,” Knauft says.

Even in an office environment, he says, an office manager can walk around weekly or monthly to make sure cords or boxes aren’t left out where people can trip over them.

“Accidents are going to happen in the workplace,” he says. But for an employer looking to minimize its liability, safety has to be elevated to a top priority.

“This has to be communicated to employees: ‘Let’s make sure nobody gets hurt today,’ ” Knauft says. “It has to become part of the culture.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected]

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