Distracted Driving, Violence and Drug Use Contribute to Workplace Fatalities

Statistics show that workplace fatalities rose for the third consecutive year

Distracted Driving, Violence and Drug Use Contribute to Workplace Fatalities

The number of annual workplace fatalities rose for the third consecutive year in 2016, according to data recently released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Transportation incidents, workplace violence and drug overdoses are key issues that contributed to the rising numbers.

Driving Dangers

The most common fatal events resulted from work transportation incidents, which represented 40 percent of workplace fatalities in 2016, according to BLS statistics.

Distracted drivers using their smartphones, the high number of delivery drivers on the road and the popularity of ride-sharing services in recent years are all factors that contribute to workplace transportation incidents, said Aaron Gelb, an attorney with Conn Maciel Carey in Chicago.

Distracted driving is a serious issue with several risk factors, said Phillip Russell, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Tampa, Fla. Workers who drive for their employer pose a risk to themselves and others by texting, e-mailing or talking on the phone while driving, but other distracted drivers also pose a risk to workers.

This is particularly an issue for work zone safety, he added. Construction crewmembers and street maintenance workers can be seriously injured or killed by distracted drivers.

Gelb suggested that businesses that employ drivers have a policy informing workers not to use devices while they are behind the wheel and that employers should have procedures in place telling drivers what to do if they have to take a call. "Employers need to train people on the procedures and enforce their policies," he added.

Workplace Violence

There were 500 workplace homicides and 291 on-the-job suicides in 2016. "This is the highest homicide figure since 2010 and the most suicides since [the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries] began reporting data in 1992," according to the BLS report.

Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn't have a federal rule on preventing workplace violence, the agency does have guidelines and recommended practices on how to reduce workers' exposure to violent incidents.   

Some states—including California—do have workplace violence prevention rules for certain industries, such as health care. Gelb said he wouldn't be surprised to see more states follow suit.

Regardless of legal requirements, employers should consider having a security plan in place that deters violence and mitigates risks in the event of an incident.

Drug Use

On-the-job overdoses from drug or alcohol use rose to 217 in 2016 from 165 in 2015, which is a 32 percent increase. The BLS statistics show that overdose fatalities have increased by at least 25 percent each year since 2012.

Among other things, legalization of medical marijuana has created safety issues, Russell noted. There's no equivalent of a blood alcohol content test for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), so it is difficult to tell when someone is impaired, he said.

The opioid crisis has also contributed to the numbers being so high, he added.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015 and that nearly two-thirds of those deaths were linked to opioid use. And in October 2017, President Donald Trump declared the nation's opioid crisis a "public health emergency."

It is important for employers to monitor workers for impairment, Gelb said. However, OSHA's 2016 limitations on drug screening have caused confusion for employers, he noted.

As part of OSHA's electronic record-keeping rule, the agency issued guidance explaining that blanket post-accident drug tests would likely deter workers from reporting accidents and injuries and would therefore violate the rule's anti-retaliation provisions.

Management attorneys were immediately concerned about the drug-testing limitations because employers want to be consistent and test everyone within reason after an incident—but now they are afraid that doing so will get them in trouble with OSHA, Gelb said.

He thinks employers should still drug test after accidents, though. OSHA's rules don't ban drug testing altogether; rather, they state that employers should limit post-accident drug tests to situations where drug use likely contributed to an incident and for which a drug test can accurately show impairment caused by drug use.

It's possible that Trump's administration will change the agency's position to once again allow blanket post-accident drug testing, but the limitations remain in effect for now.

Best Practices

"Most employers have good safety policies and safety training, but employers nationwide can do a substantially better job of enforcing the policies they already have," Russell said.

HR can partner with the in-house legal, safety and operations teams to develop programs that recognize and reward safe practices and provide discipline for unsafe behavior, he added, noting that it is essential to provide both recognition and discipline.


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