Safeguarding: Workplace Safety - the Best Yet

Workplace injury and illness rates continue to fall. Do you know why?

by Joseph J. Lazzara

Workplace injuries and illnesses have decreased by more than 60 percent during the last century. According to a Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report, workers are more than twice as likely to die accidentally at home than at work. Accidental death rates in the home exceeded more than 100 per 1 million people in 1999, compared to just 38 per million at work.

Workplace safety in the United States improves with each generation. Today's workforce is safer than ever. For example, numbers just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a rate of 79 injuries and illnesses per 1,000 workers reported in the manufacturing sector during 2001, the lowest rate since the bureau began collecting this information in the early 1970s. This continual, positive progress in the level of safety experienced by the U.S. work force stems from two major factors, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank.

The first is surprise! the marketplace economy and competition, not government regulations, driving improved working conditions. According to the Dallas Fed, "Just as...free enterprise leads profit-seeking companies to vie for labor and customers, it works to meet the employees' desire for better working conditions." The Fed report did not specifically look at the impact of government regulations on workplace safety. However, reasonable safety regulations, applied with a dash of enforcement and a penalty cost-based structure to ensure safety guidance and education, certainly can provide motivation.

The second reason for the reduction in the accident rate is that a smaller percentage of the population is employed in grueling and hazardous occupations. For example, underground coal mine and oil field jobs rank as the second most hazardous job occupations, after lumberjacking. In 1920, roughly 1 in every 40 workers held these jobs; today, just 1 in 1,056 work in these positions.

Century of Workplace Improvements

To understand how far we have come in creating a safer work environment, it helps to examine several sources to determine what our forebears willingly endured for the privilege of a paycheck in the early part of the 20th century. The Dallas Fed report says, "Work was often brutal. Early factories were noisy, dirty, cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The labor itself was repetitive, physically exhausting and often dangerous. Modern workers can hardly imagine what days were like for glue stirrers, lime burners, gravediggers and acid mixers."

People worked 10-hour shifts, Monday through Friday, plus another five hours on Saturday and don't be late punching in, even by a minute. Breaks were infrequent, lunch was out of a sack and thermos; there was no eating, drinking, talking, let alone singing on the job.

The 1920 book, Working Conditions, Wages and Profits, cites the workers' daily safety and health concern: "Injury, fatigue, strain, excessive temperatures, high humidity, poor ventilation, inadequate sanitation, disease, hazardous chemicals, long hours, rigid schedules, boredom and lack of toilet facilities."

While this illustrates working conditions in the 1920s, this reference could just as well have been excerpted from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a riveting and too-vivid image of life and death in the meatpacking industry at the turn of the century. Published in 1906, this novel so offended the American public that it led to the U.S. government establishing the Food and Drug Administration. Improving working conditions was not a high priority for much of the U.S. government's early history.

What were company management's priorities then? It wasn't employee safety and health, but rather increased productivity pioneered by the time and motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor. A taskmaster armed with a stopwatch, Taylor measured, scrutinized and analyzed workers' movements to increase production and productivity. The toll on employees' bodies was enormous. Factory workers often incurred permanent injuries, performing the same task hour after hour, day after day. There was no concern for repetitive motion injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome or ergonomics.

No Accident

The dramatic decline in at-work injuries, illnesses and deaths only could be accomplished with across-the-board improvements in working conditions for all business sectors. But only in the last third of the 20th century did many safety improvements occur.

The manufacturing injury rate fell from 230 injuries per 1,000 in 1926 to a rate of 80 per 1,000 in 1999. However, the bulk of the changes required to accomplish this did not readily happen in the decades following the 1920s. The majority of the safety improvements occurred in the 1970s and later. For example, non-fatal manufacturing injuries decreased from 153 per thousand employees in 1973 to 80 in 1999, a drop of 48 percent.

Even greater changes led to shrinking the work-related death rate. On-the-job deaths are at an all-time low, declining from a rate of 428 per million workers in 1930, to per million rates of 214 in 1960, 134 in 1980 and 38 in 1999. The 1990s witnessed a 56 percent decline in the accidental death rate from 87 deaths per million workers in 1990 to 38 in 1999!

In fact, high-risk industries have generated the greatest reductions in injury rates. Manufacturing reduced injury rates 48 percent, from 153 nonfatal injuries per thousand employees in 1973, to 80 per thousand in 1999. Construction, an industry sector with a historically high accident rate, went from 198 accidents per thousand to 84 accidents per thousand for the same time period, a 58 percent improvement.

Industries with low accident rates also experienced safety improvements. The finance, insurance and real estate sectors, for example, had decreases from 24 per thousand in 1973 to 16 per thousand in 1999. Indeed, in every industry sector workplace safety continues to improve.

Taylor's studies focused on productivity may have led to the first assembly line. In its modern incarnation, the automated assembly line has generated new and better jobs for production workers, replacing repetitive and laborious work with automated equipment and so creating technical and professional positions to further improve the workplace. People are no longer just employees they become knowledge workers.

Non-farm manual jobs, such as laborers, craftsmen, operators and assemblers, peaked at 41 percent of all occupations in 1950. Since then, this portion of the work force has steadily declined and now accounts for just 25 percent of total U.S. employment (in 2000). Furthermore, the 20 job positions classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics with the highest incidence of repetitive motion injury, such as production testers, assemblers, upholsterers, machine operators and hand packers, fell from 11.3 percent in 1970 to 6.9 percent in 2000. The U.S. base of employment has reduced its reliance on the jobs most prone to repetitive motion.

Beside the decrease in the repetitive motion occupations, other employment shifts have contributed to reduced accident rates. The growth of white-collar jobs managers, professionals, salespeople and administrative positions has increased from 37 percent of total occupations in 1950 to 60 percent 50 years later.

We have become much more of a service and knowledge worker economy, and occupations, such as white-collar jobs, are accompanied by good safety records. From 1973 to 1999, the large, catchall category of other services jobs increased from 20 to 34 percent.

The reduction in at-work accident and death rates during the last century results from many aspects of our society and economy; the achievements and competition of modern capitalism, the creation of technical and professional positions, the use of automation, and the recognition that the modern employee should be well-trained, well-empowered, and well-treated. We must continue to ensure a safe workplace, not only for the U.S. work force of today, but also for the work force of tomorrow.

References: Cox, Michael W. and Alm, Richard, "Have a Nice Day! The American Journey to Better Working Conditions." Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Annual Report 2000.

Price, C.W., Orval Simpson, Dale Wolf et al., Working Conditions, Wages and Profits. Chicago: A.W. Shaw, 1920.

About the author: Joseph J. Lazzara is president and CEO of Scientific Technologies Inc. (STI), Fremont, Calif., the largest provider of automation safeguarding solutions in North America (www.sti.com).

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