Almost any job can be dangerous. Back injuries alone affect at least 345,000 employees each year, accounting for over 100 million lost workdays. Annually, over 36,000 suffer eye damage at work. According to Mei-Li Lin, executive director of research and statistics services for the National Safety Council (NSC) in Itasca, Illinois, every employee in America -- all 142.9 million of them -- is at risk.
Many employers, across a spectrum of industries, are giving high priority to controlling injury and fatality risk factors. Approaches that decrease dangers, however, can require significant investments of staff time, capital and patience, since results emerge very gradually. This begs the question: Are injury prevention programs worth their costs?
Work-related injuries seriously impact employers, employees and society. In 2004, 1.3 million Americans injured on the job required recuperation time away from work, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Annually, $155 to $232 billion is spent on workers compensation. Beyond what employers cover, it cost the nation $160 billion in 2005 for the 4.2 million injuries or fatalities reported to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), according to NSC.
Furthermore, some experts question the accuracy of published accident and injury statistics. While recent government figures indicate a decline, "Major studies in Michigan and California show that OSHA misses approximately 2/3 of workplace injuries." says Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. "OSHA has cited numerous major employers for keeping a double set of books, or willfully not reporting injuries. It's a major issue."
Unfortunately, employers have strong incentives to not report on-the-job injuries. Recent studies in New York and Florida found "employers... consciously evading the law and not paying workers compensation premiums, misclassifying employees as a way of saving money," says Shufro. In New York State alone, employers ignored required annual premiums on nearly $1 billion of payroll.
Under a new state program, Florida hired inspectors to investigate whether construction companies were paying the required workers compensation fees. Over the first three years, state government collected nearly $1 billion in unpaid premiums -- leading to a 30% reduction in all employers' rates.
Intensifying the temptation of sizable savings is the fact that no one is watching. Shufro cites the 2001 withdrawal of long-established national workplace standards. "Thousands of workers are now exposed to safety hazards that could have been prevented. Instead of enforcement, the federal government turned to voluntary compliance." Now, Shufro calculates, OSHA has "enough inspectors to see each employer one time every 140 years. Any fine for a serious violation is under $1,000."
OSHA's current five-year plan aims to reduce workplace fatalities by 15% and injuries by 20%. Shufro sympathizes with its inspectors for trying to do their jobs, "under strained circumstances: under-funded, under attack and understaffed."
The consequences of workplace injuries are more than monetary. Accidents involving workers can tarnish an employer's reputation, create legal problems and damage morale. After a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas killed 15 workers and injured hundreds, an internal report found that several senior managers had failed to heed "serious warning signals." Four of BP's U.S. executives were fired. Then, a 2006 Alaskan oil spill forced the closing of America's biggest oil field, revealing widespread corrosion in BP's pipelines and leading to a Justice Department investigation.
Injury prevention problems are increasingly complex, as American companies acquiring businesses in Third World countries become responsible for their new employees' safety. Often, an acquired enterprise has weak worker protection standards, complicating integration of the foreign business into the parent company's operations.
Injury Risk Factors
Many workplace injuries are preventable-leading causes can often be identified, then modified. Frequent risk factors include:
- improper or inadequate equipment
- poor training, leaving a worker unprepared to cope with a hazardous circumstance
- cultural or language barriers that reduce the effectiveness of safety-related communication
- contractors with lower or unenforced safety standards
- dangerous working conditions
- unsafe behaviors
Workplace fatalities of 2005 highlighted two major difficulties. First, motor vehicles caused 38% of them. Second, the 15% of employees who are foreign-born suffered 17% of all workplace fatalities. Contributing factors probably include varying knowledge of English, or job-related safety regulations.
Fortunately, greater safety can be simple and inexpensive, in nearly any injury category. For instance, 90% of eye injuries are preventable with proper protective gear and regular eye exams. Short, frequent breaks drastically reduce the number and severity of back injuries.
The best information about potential hazards often comes from on-site personnel. For its 200 locations, Johnson & Johnson developed an information review system for global compliance and risk reduction. As reporting and assessment tools identify safety deficiencies, individual sites devise specific improvements. In Indonesia, where many workers commute by bicycles and motorcycles, the company introduced a helmet program.
How a Prevention Program Succeeds
Before proposing or planning a serious prevention program, carefully weigh likely costs and time against potential savings of avoiding injury-related expenses. Compile the most convincing statistics, because some level of skepticism -- from corporate executives, managers, supervisors and other employees -- is likely.
Resistance does not surprise Lin, who considers any new safety emphasis a corporate culture shift. "It's not easy," she says. "The key is leadership. Meaningful, purposeful, active, measurable involvement becomes the foundation of any culture change." Trust develops very gradually. "You have to genuinely care when you talk to employees -- they see right through it."
"A focus on safety becomes easier to sustain once the organization internalizes the belief that safety is directly linked to profitability, turnover, morale and more," says Christopher Sheehey, vice president, global environment, health and safety for IMERYS, the international mining company. "They'll react more swiftly in making safety in making safety a core value."
Sheehey acknowledges the challenges presented by acquiring new sites with varying levels of safety cultures. After some fatalities in recently-acquired Asia-Pacific locations, the case for stronger safety programs was further facilitated by the very real human costs of accidents. Once a problem is acknowledged, he advises, "let employees know what corrective steps were taken, to show that management takes the situation seriously and will not accept injury as a cost of doing business."
In 2005, he helped develop IMERYS' Safety University, consisting of a two-day course for operations managers, four-hour "MBA-level" programs for senior executives, and a train-the-trainer component preparing supervisors to train their peers.
One-size-fits-all safety programs frequently trigger resistance, which may have validity, Sheehey believes. "Typically, people pushing back are the smartest," he says. "They understand the issues, and want someone to listen."
Instead, he suggests, make injury-reporting a basic requirement, provide tools, request a plan for gradual improvement, and schedule periodic compliance audits. Consider cultural differences, too. "Social welfare systems encourage reporting injuries, because you'll be taken care of," he says. "But in some Asian cultures, you may not be paid if you don't show up at work. No one wants to be seen as a troublemaker, so they won't say, 'my shoulder hurts.'"
New teams, involving operations and maintenance personnel, managers and CEOs (often with backgrounds unrelated to safety), receive training modules with checklists for goals to meet at designated times. Safety compliance has become part of senior-level job descriptions. With clear standards communicated at each of their 250 locations in 43 countries, all IMERYS employees know new safety requirements, and the consequences for ignoring them.
Alcan, the Montreal-based aluminum and packaging company, launched its injury/fatality prevention program, EHS First, in 2001. A 60-member, multi-department team collaboratively designed companywide procedures, utilizing each area's assessment of safety needs and possible approaches to such high risks as hazardous energy and confined spaces.
During a two-year implementation, the rapidly-expanding company strove to certify all facilities to international specifications. Challenges included navigating a hierarchy of controls to determine hazard-reduction approaches for different behaviors, settings and cultures among 68,000 employees in 61 countries. Alcan identified potential improvements and then, like Johnson & Johnson, let sites formulate their own approaches.
"We created a register of key exposure risks, like segregating pedestrians and mobile equipment, and redesigned some facilities to do that," says Simon Laddychuk, vice president, EHS First and Sustainability. Often, sites have separate doors for people and equipment. A smelter in China, with only one door, opted to install another. Awareness-building exercises include putting employees in a truck driver's seat to show that being high up does not allow them to see everything around them. New videos communicate shared responsibilities for safety.
Risks of confined space entry, a frequent cause of industry casualties, are now controlled by atmospheric testing, clear signage and continuous monitoring. The unusual aspect has been including these controls in the management process. "We worked hard to raise the bar and our performance, through higher standards, accountability and responsibility," says Laddychuk, stressing the need for strong leadership, appropriate equipment and effective training. Their 20,000 formally-instructed employees then train their own people. Despite initial reservations, workers quickly understand "what's in it for them?," he says. They translate new safety programs as, "you can come to work, go home safely at the end of the day, lower risks to your health and improve the environment."
Whether adapting available resources or developing preventive steps in-house, employers can see gratifying results. Utilizing its own data, Johnson & Johnson reported that it has prevented accidents, improved productivity, avoided costs, saved millions of dollars, and spared employees' potential pain and suffering.
Since 2005, ongoing safety training has reduced IMERYS injuries and accidents by 50%. With lost-time injuries significantly lowered, Sheehey anticipates them achieving industry leadership by 2009.
For its safety achievements, Alcan won the National Safety Council's Robert W. Campbell award in 2006. In total recordable case rates, fatalities and lost-time injuries, Alcan had reduced its injury rate by 80%-85%
Carol Milano is a New York-based writer specializing in health care and environmental topics.