Report Shows Continued Decline in Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

Many factors may have contributed to drop in reported workplace injuries

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Occupational injuries and illnesses have been on the decline for most of the last 13 years and that trend continued in 2015, according to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Private employers reported about 2.9 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 2015. There were three reported cases per 100 full-time workers, the report said, which is the lowest recorded rate since 2002.

"We are encouraged to see the significant decline in worker injury and illness rates," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels, in a press statement. "This is the result of the relentless efforts of employers, unions, worker advocates, occupational safety and health professionals, and federal and state government agencies ensuring that worker safety and health remains a top priority every day."

However, 2.9 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses "is still far too many," he said. "At OSHA, we will continue to do all that we can to continue driving the rate down."

Focus on Reporting

OSHA was created by the federal government more than 40 years ago to carry out the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the agency has had a positive effect on workplace safety, said Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta. But the current leadership has shifted its focus away from core safety issues and toward reporting, he added.

This focus is reflected in OSHA's new record-keeping rule, which includes anti-retaliation provisions regarding safety incentive programs and post-incident drug testing. Those provisions are currently being challenged by business groups in federal court.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Determine Regulatory Requirements for Safety]

Although the statistics show that injuries have decreased for 12 of the last 13 years, the administration continues to devote more resources to try to compel injury reporting, Mavity said.

The agency has said it's concerned that employers are underreporting incidents and that employees are afraid to report injuries due to fear of retaliation.

Mavity said, however, that there's no denying that the workplace is getting safer. Although there are some unscrupulous employers out there, most employers want to comply with safety standards, he added.

He said the agency should be focused on the aging workforce and health issues faced by workers of all ages.

"That's what is likely to lead to workplace safety issues in the future," he said. "Employers might not notice the burgeoning issues in the pipeline."

Heart attacks, heat illnesses and other employee health issues can impact employers, he noted, even if those issues are more about lifestyle than workplace safety.

Beyond the Numbers

"Anytime you have a report that shows a number of sectors reporting a decline in the rate of injuries and illnesses, that's a positive," said Brian Fielkow, J.D., co-author of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield (North Loop Books, 2016).

"But I don't think this report is anything to get too excited over," he said. "People shouldn't shift their focus away from safety simply because things are improving.

"Good isn't good enough. The only acceptable injury rate is zero."

Factors other than workplace safety measures may also be contributing to the decline in injuries.

"For example, the decline in the oil and gas industry could be because there were dramatically fewer oil and gas jobs in 2015 than in 2013 and 2014," he explained.

He said employers have to ask themselves: "Are we really providing safety leadership, or is there stuff going on behind these numbers that is less about safety execution and more about macro trends?"

Mavity noted that it is likely not just the decline in volume that has contributed to less injuries.

When there's less demand, workers are less rushed, may work less hours and may be less fatigued. There are also fewer foundries and other injury-prone businesses than there used to be.

"There's been a huge increase in service work, which is not as hazardous, and the manufacturing that continues is more modern and has become safer," Mavity added.

Leadership's Role in Safety

"Safety, human resources and compliance managers ought to be coaching and training staff and creating safety measures," Fielkow said. "But operations has to own safety and be responsible for the execution of safety programs."

Safety should be a nonnegotiable core value for the company. Leadership should tell front-line supervisors and workers that safety is the priority and that they can report issues with zero fear of retribution.

"What HR can do to move the needle on safe behaviors is help the operations managers distinguish between honest mistakes and reckless behavior," he added.

Employers should document honest mistakes and provide coaching while recognizing that everyone is human and that mistakes happen, Fielkow said. In contrast, reckless or intentional safety violations might warrant more serious discipline or even immediate dismissal.   

When there is a culture of fairness and an environment of trust, employees are more likely to report incidents, he said.

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