Worshiping at the altar of false gods


By Phil La Duke

Yesterday was the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Last week I buried an uncle. He, like his brother before him, my father, died the agonizing death that only mesothelioma can bring. Watching the rapid deterioration of someone who was recently so full of life is hard enough to watch, but watch it repeatedly unfold is tough. My brother was one of seven boys in his family and all but one of them served in World War II and even though one served at Guadalcanal and another flew Corsairs over the Pacific they all came home safe. The workplace did what World War II couldn’t kill these men of the greatest generation. But injury rates are down so maybe I should just shut up about it. I guess it just grinds me that so many of our profession look at one of indicator (Incident Rates) and pronounce the battle if not won, certainly nearly so.

Incident rates are falling, any safety professional will tell you that. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics over 8,000 people get injured on the job every day in the United States alone. EVERY DAMNED DAY! Add to that that fatalities are trending flat and we have an alarming statistic. Last week I talked about indicators and (in part) how indicators in a vacuum lead us astray. When we consider these two indicators together it would seem that they tell us very different things. When considered together, however they can mean any number of confusing, contradictory things, and maybe they can tell us something we don’t want to face.

What could reduced injury rates mean? Certainly it could mean that fewer people are getting hurt and I guess that’s cause for celebration, unless of course you are one of the 8,000 who will get hurt this today. Reduced injury rates could also mean more accurate case management; that is, perhaps organizations are doing a better job exposing fraud, which is a good thing. Of course reduced injury rates could indicate a dangerous trend of under-reported injuries or injuries deliberately manipulated such that they are no longer “recordables”.

Without any other evidence, no further indicators, all of these explanations are equally plausible. But the ugly fact is that taken together we have scant little explanation for this discordance. One of two states exists: either the workplace is getting safer or it is not. On the side of the safer workplace argument is the reduced injury trend, but on the side of the “things are more less the same “ argument is the flat fatalities trend. Either reduced injuries mean that the work place is getting safer or flat fatality trends mean that things aren’t getting any better. There are other possibilities, however unlikely. For example the workplace could be increasingly free of “low hanging fruit” those simple hazards that are quick, cheap, and easy to fix. Walk through any industrial setting and you will soon be convinced that this isn’t true. It could also indicate that while fewer people are getting hurt the chances of a worker getting killed aren’t getting any lower. We should either see fewer injuries and a corresponding drop in fatalities or a flat trend in both figures indicating that nothing is improving.

What then are we to make of the flat trend in fatalities? Certainly it is exceedingly difficult for an organization to use case management to turn a first aid or case into a fatality, so I think we can rule out better case management or even case management fraud as the reason that fatalities aren’t improving. It is also incredibly difficult to over-report fatalities so we can rule that out as a reason that we don’t see fewer fatalities. So we must accept the possibility that there are indeed other forces acting on the incident rates and that these other forces aren’t really making the workplace safer, they are just making it possible to “juke the stats”. We can play games with the numbers to make our performance look better without actually making the workplace safer.

I’m no conspiracy fanatic, I don’t believe there is a conscious effort on the part of most companies to mislead the government or workers, but I do believe that many companies have misused incentives, perpetuated antiquated thinking that convinces senior leadership that behavior-based nonsense somehow is making the workplace safer when it is not. We have to consider that maybe, just maybe, the falling incident trend is a lie, or at very least an indication not of improved safety but of organizations bowing to pressure to get their rates down and doing so by means other than lowering their risk to workers. This is dangerous ground. If we fail to recognize our risk, because we believe our risk of injury is artificially lower than it is we place our workers and ourselves in harms way. It’s high time that we take a hard look at this cherished fact that incident rates have been falling and that falling incident rates mean a safer workplace.  If it is a pure fact that incident rates are falling for no other reason than because fewer people are getting injured that means that the workplace is getting more dangerous because a higher percentage of workers die because of their injuries.  I don’t think this is true.

Some believe that this discrepancy between fatality number and injury rates is because fatal injuries fundamentally caused by different factors than less serious injury. They may be right, but it’s also possible that they believe this because the idea of improving incident rates is so appealing that many will reject any suggestion that this trend is bogus. We in safety love our idols, our false gods; falling incident may be just one myth with which we are so enamored. Meanwhile, in the time it took to write this article approximately 223 workers were injured. Isn’t it time for us to rethink this statistic and stop trotting it out as proof that we are doing a good job?


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