Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Preventing Workplace Fatalities – Are OSHA’s Hands Tied?

I just took a look at the latest revisions to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2009 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries counts (the latest year for which the data were available), available at Many trainers find the info makes good fodder when opening an OSHA 10 or 30 hour training course. A few of the statistics really jumped out at me me, and got me to thinking about the effectiveness of OSHA’s standards and their potential to prevent future workplace fatalities.

First a few of the basic stat’s from the BLS:  There were 4,551 workplace fatalities in 2009 (the latest year for which data are available), continuing an encouraging downward trend over the past several years. Those of you who are aware there were approximately 14,000 worker fatalities in 1969, the year before OSHA was created, can appreciate the vast drop in the raw number of fatalities, especially when you consider the worker population in the US was much larger in 2009 than in 1969.

No doubt the efforts of the fine folks at OSHA have greatly contributed to the drop. But we also must give credit to other influential factors, including; the decline of the industrial work base here in the US, the increased use of automation in the workplace, improvements in equipment and medical technology, the realities of controlling workers comp costs, the fear of lawsuits, and last but not least, the horrible economic recession of recent years.

But it was the following details that were buried in the report that really surprised me.

Did you know that 985 of the worker fatalities (21.64%) in 2009 are attributed to Highway Accidents (these fatalities include vehicle occupants resulting from traffic incidents on public roadways, shoulders, or surrounding areas)? And that 805 of the fatalities (17.69%) were attributed to Assaults and Violent Acts (542 were homicides, 263 were suicides)? That means that nearly 40% of all workplace fatalities (just those two categories combined) were due to an event or exposure for which OSHA has no specific safety standards!

Sure, you could argue the general duty clause has been cited by OSHA against employers in a few workplace violence cases, and OSHA has also issued a bulletin on distracted driving. But my point is there are no specific OSHA regulations in place to protect against the specific hazards that caused a very substantial portion of the worker fatalities.

And here is one more statistic of interest I found in the report:  Self-employed individuals (a category that includes self-employed workers and most business owners), who are specifically excluded from coverage of the OSH Act (and therefore OSHA regulations), accounted for almost 23.4% of all fatalities (1,063) in 2009! Should Congress amend the OSHA Act to cover these folks? Would that further impact workplace safety?

I am not trying to berate OSHA, nor am I suggesting they are becoming obsolete; without them the number of workplace fatalities would most probably rise, and with them we can continue to whittle down the overall number workplace fatalities.  But without some meaningful additions to their safety standards in these areas, it appears that OSHA’s central role in helping achieve everyone’s goal of “Zero Fatalities” in the workplace is greatly diminished. It also reinforces the fact that we in the safety community need to redouble our efforts to address these unregulated hazards where we can.

What have you done to address workplace violence? Or driver safety? I know these topics do not affect all of us, but I’m interested to hear what has been done with success at your (or your client’s) sites, or what you think should be done, and if that includes employee training.

Please share your efforts and ideas by submitting a comment (link below). And please, pass a link to this blog along to others in your network who can benefit from this information.


  1. How come employer concern for worker safety is not listed as a reason for decreased fatalities?

    As far as the highway deaths and assaults and violent acts, why are they even listed in the total?
    Violent acts that happen in the workplace are often overflow from societal issues.
    If a guy gets killed while driving a work vehicle why is that the employer's fault?

    I am not saying that OSHA is not needed anymore. In constrution, manufacturing ect there are hazards and dangers.
    However the overreach into areas that are societal is unnecessary. If a jealous husband wants to hurt his estranged wife who happens to be at work why should the employer be responsible to protect against that? Don't we have a thing called law enforcement?

  2. Management is responsible for preventing incidents and in doing so, operating in a high quality, safe, and productive manner that will enable the organization to compete and survive. Regulatory compliance is not the responsibility of the government, but management. If an organization wants to reduce incidents, it need to manage it operations in a more effective manner, and set the objectives that will allow it to obtain the goal of Zero Fatalities.

  3. Workplace place violence/suicides must be clearly defined. I haven't seen a definition in the 29 CFR 1910. Should employers be penalized for employees bringing domestic issues into the workplace? And how do we standardize or differentiate WORKPLACE STRESS as opposed to "Normal every day Stress" that may be the reason for the violent acts and suicides?

    Employers should look at the investment of Employers Assistance Programs (EAP)and training for the management team to look for the tell tale signs for behavior outside of the norm. it should be included within the "Terms and Conditions of Employment" that employees must attend counselling if their behavior is outside their norm.

    According to the figures stated 62.73% of fatalities in 2009 are not specifically covered under the regulations.

    If they are not covered, why are they included in the Stats?

  4. You are giving OSHA to much credit. There are many, many hazards that they do not address in the regulations. Leaders in private industry that believe that worker safety is a company value are the ones that should get the credit not a mediocre regulatory agency influenced by politics and unions. Regarding driver safety we do periodic training for on the job and off the job driving the same for workplace violence. We also assess the security of our job sites.

  5. Driving Fatalities: A few variables not cited in the decreasing injury/fatality rate of TOTAL incidents are the decreasing number of employees in the workplace in general,and those assigned as drivers who fall under a class code, specifically. Incident rates calculated to a sampling size specific to job classification would be a better indicator than a rise and/or decrease of the total number.
    Workplace Violence: This is best left to experts in the field of the social and psychological sciences for interpretation; a area for which OSHA has not a clue, nor, do they have an appetite to enter this realm of real modern-day calamity. Largely due to crass media bombardment of never-ending violent acts, American society has become hugely jaded to death by any cause; which I believe enters into the workforce as easily as it does to what we now identify as family life and general social interaction. Continually restrictive hiring privacy laws have also played a significant factor in screening out those least desirable job applicants.
    OSHA has done a marvelously effective job dealing with the finite risks that can be measured to standards, but are woefully short in addressing the myriad of unmeasurables that they sweep under General Duty, or, "we have no ideas, so it's your responsibility."

  6. C. David Betzner, PhDThu Aug 25, 11:48:00 AM 2011

    Although the statistics show a good trend, it is imperative that owners take a pre-active role in the safety of all of the employees. OSHA is and has only ever been a bare minimum of safety. Those who chose to follow the bare minimum of safety can expect to continue to have multiple near-misses leading to a percentaqe of injuries-recordables-lost time and fatalaties.

    Most organizations that have not had the experience of a fatality do not feel that they are candidates for such a terrible incident. Those that have, tend to be much more proactive and practice safety at a higher level. Good risk analysis and strong hands on safety training, not computer programs (they have their place) will continue to drive down on the job fatalities in these areas.

  7. This is a good common sense Blog. Very helpful to one who is just finding the resources about this part. It will certainly help educate me.

  8. dont use the term common sense ever when talking about safety or health.


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