The Body Counts Continue

By Phil La Duke

As the safety professionals nestled in the serene bosom of the holidays, the Bureau of Labor Statistics dropped a shattering revelation. The news came like a hammer through a plate glass window; sudden and jarring. Workplace fatalities have risen to their highest rate since 2008. The fact that overall injuries have continued to fall year after year has lulled safety professionals into thinking that the workplace over all has become safer; we sit and congratulate ourselves on a job well done, ignoring the fatal fly in the ointment that the trend in workplace fatalities has stayed flat and now has spiked upward.

In this Twittering Trump, Brexit, post-fact world that fact that people are continuing to die at work doesn’t seem to matter; we congratulate ourselves none-the-less. Our leaders both within Safety and in our core businesses continue to count bandages. Despite injury counts and rates and other lagging indicators we crack on like Nazi bureaucrats bearing witness to the carnage and telling ourselves that we are only following orders and if we didn’t do it they would just find someone else to do; hard at work at the mundane task of having blood on our hands while telling ourselves that we are doing God’s work.

Too harsh? Maybe. But consider this: as those 4,836 workers lie dying in the dirt of a construction site, or a cramped warehouse, or along side a lonely stretch of road, the pundits of our field wrote books, and trumpeted loudly the snake oil d’jour. The safety Neros fiddled as the workers died. Each day someone comes up with another way of treating injuries while ignoring risk. Risk; the probability of injury; concepts to difficult to grasp and even harder to reduce, haunts our trade, and yet these charlatans continue rebranding the same old crap, caring not if people die as long as people buy and buy.

The propaganda arm of the National Safety Council, Health & Safety magazine does a nice job of reporting the grim statistics; the butcher’s bill, and are quick to point out the significant drop in overall injuries, it offers no insight into these deaths. They point out some inane statistics (“Fatal injuries among private oil and gas extraction workers were 38 percent lower in 2015 than 2014. Gee with the oil and gas business still swirling steadily above the proverbial toilet bowl, I wonder why fatalities in this area are over a third lower.)

Data without analysis is simply trivia, and the report offers it up in heaping portion. Take for instance the “650 deaths occurred among workers age 65 and older – the second-highest total among this demographic since the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began in 1992.” The coverage doesn’t include what this might imply. Is this a statistical anomaly or is it cause for genuine concern; we don’t know because no one asked the question.

The fact is no one in safety seems too concerned that fatalities are flat (if you listen to the most optimistic or rising if you listen to the most realistic among us.) We focus on the effectively meaningless drop in overall injuries. Of course we also ignore the fact that at least a portion of this steady improvement in injury reduction is a fallacy. We cannot measure injuries while rewarding their absence. How much of this decrease is recorded injuries are simply the result of under-reporting? We don’t know and what’s more we don’t seem to care. Unreported injuries create a skewed view of our operating risk, which is a precursor to serious injury or death. As we become more complacent about the risk of injury we have a tendency to take greater and greater risks and every time we are unharmed by a shortcut, or we drift from the norm and emerge unscathed we teach ourselves that unnecessary risk taking—even recklessness—is safe. The increase in fatalities is no mystery. The mystery is why no one seems to care enough to do anything about it.