NOIRS: Henshaw: Injury Prevention is the "Soul" of the Safety Profession

In an address to open the National Occupational Injury Research Symposium (NOIRS) 2003 on Oct. 28 in Pittsburgh, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw shared his agency's activities regarding injury prevention and told them, "As safety and health professionals, the word 'prevention' is not just a watchword or slogan for us, it is our 'animus.' From the Latin, this means our soul, our character our basic attitude or animating spirit."

Playing up OSHA's slogan of the past year "safety and health add value" Henshaw said the agency's goal is for every employer and employee in the United States to build a safety culture at their workplace. The first step, he said, is recognizing the value of a safe, healthful work environment.

Citing a Liberty Mutual study that estimates that between $155 billion to $232 billion is spent annually on workers' compensation, Henshaw pointed out the costs of workplace injuries continue to climb at an alarming rate.

"Safety and health also add value to the workplace. Benefits include greater productivity, higher quality, increased morale, reduced turnover and other tangible benefits," said Henshaw. "And clearly, safety and health add value to one's life. For workers, getting hurt or sick is not just physically painful. It can reduce income, increase stress and hinder a full family life. Workers need to understand this clearly enough to assure personal ownership of their actions and ultimately their safety."

Henshaw touted theparticipants in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program as a group of companies that know the value of safety. He reiterated the agency wants to see the number of companies in VPP grow, from the 1,000 that currently participate to 8,000 "or even more," said Henshaw.

He pointed to new initiatives, including VPP Challenge, VPP Corporate and VPP Construction, aimed at getting more companies involved in the program.

Henshaw told the audience about OSHA's five-year strategic management plan to reduce the rate of fatalities by at least 15 percent and the rate of injuries/illnesses by at least 20 percent.

The plan is data-driven, said Henshaw. "We've analyzed where injuries, illnesses and fatalities are occurring," he said. "Now we need to implement strategies to prevent them. Your research into how and why injuries occur and what prevention measures are effective can contribute greatly to our effort."

One area of particular concern to the agency is immigrant workers. The recent Bureau of Labor Statistics fatality numbers show that work-related deaths among Hispanics declined in 2002 for the first time in several years. But there's more to the story, said Henshaw. "While deaths among native-born Hispanics dropped significantly, deaths among foreign-born Spanish-speaking workers actually rose."

Since 2002, OSHA's been trying to find out whether there is a link between language and cultural barriers and employee deaths.

"On every fatality we investigate, our field officers now check to determine if workers were immigrants, or Hispanics, or spoke a language other than English or experienced any other language barrier. If this is the case, we ask our investigators to dig deeper to get additional background information," said Henshaw.

To date, OSHA has found that about 25 percent of the fatalities we investigate do involve one of these factors. But in some metropolitan areas, the rate is even higher: 57 percent in New York City and 54 percent in the greater Houston area. "This data is preliminary," Henshaw admitted, adding, "We're just beginning to examine it and look for ways to use the information to find better ways to reduce deaths on the job."

In addition to outreach through the agency's Spanish Web site, Spanish public service announcements and the 55 Mexican consulates throughout the United States, OSHA plans to partner with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to hold a one and a half day Hispanic Summit in Washington in 2004 focusing on a variety of immigrant worker safety and health issues.

In seeking to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses, Henshaw said OSHA is going to focus both on specific sites where injury rates are high and specific industries. In Fiscal Year 2004, the agency will conduct about 3,500 inspections at these targeted sites. OSHA will also encourage priority consultations for small businesses among workplaces with high injury and illness rates.

In addition, during FY 2004, OSHA will concentrate resources on seven specific industries where there are many severe injuries at least 5,000 in each industry. In addition, half of the lost workday injuries are severe enough to cause injured workers to miss at least six days of work. These seven focus industries include:

  • Landscaping/horticultural services
  • Oil and gas field services
  • Fruit and vegetable processing
  • Concrete and concrete products
  • Blast furnace and basic steel products
  • Ship and boat building and repair
  • Public warehousing and storage

"Over the next year, we expect to conduct nearly 1,400 inspections at sites in these industries as well as 1,050 consultation visits," said Henshaw, who, at an informal meeting following his remarks, said he met with representatives from the steel industry last week. "They asked how they could get off the list," he said with a smile. "I told them, 'Reduce your lost workday injuries.'"

Finally, Henshaw said OSHA plans to reach out to other vulnerable worker populations, including contract workers who have more than one job or change jobs frequently, and teen workers, who are prohibited by law from operating certain types of equipment or holding certain jobs.

In addition to specific groups of workers and employers, OSHA is also going to address nontraditional area, including homeland security and workplace emergencies, motor vehicle fatalities and workplace violence.

"Someone once said, 'The common facts of today are the products of yesterday's research,'" Henshaw told the audience, many of whom were researchers. "Intuitively, we know that safety and health add value. But your work verifies and informs our assertions."

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