National Safety Month: Workplace Fatalities and Injuries
June is National Safety Month: a time for organizations to place a renewed focus on safety. For many workplaces, this means ensuring compliance with regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as state and local laws.
Compliance is, of course, a legal necessity—but it should also be seen as the bare minimum. Understanding the scope and nature of both workplace fatalities and non-fatal injuries will go far to creating successful programs that, in the long run, literally save lives. As National Safety Month comes to a close, let’s keep workplace safety front and center, all year long.
The Disturbing Story Behind Workplace Injury Statistics
The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (under the U.S. Department of Labor) report an overall fatality rate of 4,764 workplace fatalities in 2020. While that number is down from the 2019 total—a 12-year high of 5,333 fatal work injuries—it still represents an unacceptably high number of incidents.
Outside of fatal injuries, there were some 3.2 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses, including hearing loss, accidental poisoning, and respiratory disorders.
What is most telling about this data, however, is its trajectory. Most of the decline in fatality rate came from a sudden drop in just two categories: transportation work and trucking. As both industries ground to a halt with the 2020 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, it’s logical that the raw number of fatalities would drop. But when we factor out this drop, there was actually a slight increase in incidents across other categories.
Long story short, workplaces in the United States have to do better. Even with occupational safety regulations in place, the incidence of workplace accidents and workplace fatalities is not shrinking the way it should.
That is all the more reason why every organization should take time to understand the data, and then to put a plan in place so that next year’s statistics don’t show the same disturbing trend.
Slicing and Dicing Workplace Fatal Injury Data
Here are some key findings from the Bureau’s 2020 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries:
- A worker died every 111 minutes from a work-related injury in 2020.
- Workers in transportation and material moving occupations—1,282 workplace deaths and construction and extraction occupations (976 workplace deaths) together account for nearly half (47.4 percent) of all work-related deaths. That said, some of the biggest increases in rates of death were, unsurprisingly, in healthcare.
- Transportation incidents remained the most frequent type of fatal event, with 1,778 fatal injuries. (Yes, this was despite the drop from the previous year!) All together, transportation events account for 37.3 percent of work-related fatalities.
- Women made up 8.1 percent of all fatalities but represented 16.3 percent of workplace homicide victims.
- Workers between the ages of 45 and 54 suffered 954 workplace fatalities, the lowest count for this age group since 1992.
- The share of Hispanic or Latino workers fatally injured on the job continued to grow, increasing to 22.5 percent (1,072 fatalities) from 20.4 percent (1,088 fatalities) in 2019.
- Exposure to harmful substances or environments led to 672 worker fatalities in 2020, the highest figure since the series began in 2011. Within this category, unintentional overdose from nonmedical use of drugs accounted for 57.7 percent of fatalities (388 deaths), up from 48.8 percent in 2019.
What can we make of these numbers?
While the sheer number of workplace fatalities decreased in 2020, it is clear that the risk posed to U.S. workers shifted. Some kinds of accidents and illnesses became less common, while others shot up. Chances are that these reflect the realities of the pandemic. For example, it is likely that fewer older employees suffered fatalities simply because many elected an early retirement or made work-from-home arrangements. Likewise, there were more incidents involving healthcare workers as our healthcare system strained under the pandemic.
So, what can organizations expect going forward? Now that people are traveling again and returning to the factory floor, it would not be surprising to see workplace fatalities around transportation incidents spike again when the 2021 and 2022 numbers are released. The same might be true for environmental exposure and accidental overdose, both of which have been steadily increasing over the years.
Source: BLS News Release, National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2020
What the Data on Non-Fatal Workplace Injuries Tell Us
There were 1,176,340 non-fatal injuries and illnesses that caused a private industry worker to miss at least one day of work in 2020—a full 32.4% higher than the total from 2019. This represents an incredible loss of productivity, one that might well be exacerbating labor problems already in existence due to the pandemic and The Great Resignation.
The biggest increases in injury and illness rates were seen in the nursing profession:
Source: Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illnesses—2020
While nurses and nursing assistants have both been in the top ten for incidence rate of workplace illness and injury for some time, the effects of COVID-19 and its aftermath can clearly be seen here.
That said, manual jobs have not seen any sort of dip in incidence, and they continue to be a major source of workplace injuries such as sprains, tears, strains, lacerations, contusions, and factures. Outside of nursing and healthcare, the highest rates of injury tend to be for:
- Laborers and freight, stock and material movers
- Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers
- Maintenance and repair workers, general
And though they did not appear in the top ten, construction workers also have a comparable rate of nonfatal workplace injury.
What can we make of these numbers?
One thing that can be concluded here is that incidence closely follows risk. Occupations that take workers on the road (truck drivers, for example) tend to see more than their fair share of truck accidents. Those moving heavy loads by hand tend to see sprains, strains, and fractures. Those exposed to the sick, such as people with COVID-19, tend to themselves develop respiratory problems.
The silver lining here is that risk can be determined quite accurately. Workplace accidents are not “random” in the usual sense. The risk for various occupations is knowable, and when you know the major risks, you can better prepare your employees to avoid those specific illnesses and injuries.
Preventing Incidents Before They Happen
One of the best ways to reduce the overall number of workplace fatalities and injuries is for employers to take proactive safety measures. Again, this works because the risks associated with most occupations are knowable, and so you can develop effective workplace safety programs in advance.
Creating an effective program requires buy-in at all levels, as well as a solid content strategy built around best practices. HSI can help! We offer safety training, safety management software, and chemical management solutions for businesses of any size.