Editor's Notebook: Safety Benefits from Economics and Compassion

Jan. 20, 2005
A terrible tragedy offers a fresh perspective on the special role of safety management in business and the overlooked need for compassion.

The global village grew smaller this past month in the wake of the tsunami disaster in Asia. With the deaths of more than 140,000 men, women and children and the daily coverage on television and the Internet, we experienced a vivid reminder of the social bond that binds us all. Though the tsunami struck nations half a world away, Americans were immediately empathetic and willing to provide aid. Along with the federal government's response, millions of Americans have donated to charitable organizations engaged in relief efforts.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the occupational safety and health profession is engaged every day in a global effort to prevent injury, death and the attendant suffering. Each year, more than 2 million men and women die from workplace injuries and illnesses, according to the International Labour Organization. Some reports suggest that China alone may be responsible for 120,000 workplace fatalities a year.

Despite the exodus of manufacturing jobs from this country, we still experience a staggering number of deaths each year, as our lead story in "EHS News" reports. More than 5,000 people die from workplace injuries each year in the United States and more than 4 million suffer workplace injuries and illnesses. The annual cost to the U.S. economy is an estimated $171 billion.

While human suffering more than justifies a national effort, businesses, in the end, are economic entities. At last, both NIOSH and OSHA have come to recognize that businesses need to understand both that workplace safety is an issue they can manage and control, and that safety professionals need better tools for measuring the economic impact of occupational injuries and illnesses.

NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard recently noted that the institute is supporting research to develop "means and methods for measuring the indirect costs of injuries and illnesses with greater certainty, counting the losses that drain corporate and household accounts alike and demonstrating that smart interventions can repay themselves many times over."

For example, NIOSH is working with researchers at the University of Wisconsin to compare methods for calculating employer costs of workplace injury and illness, with an eye to identifying best practices for employers. NIOSH is also helping OSHA update its $AFETY PAYS software for measuring the economic impact of occupational injuries and illnesses on a company's profitability. Researchers are also refining a NIOSH economic model for calculating the societal costs of fatal occupational injuries. That model shows that between 1992 and 2001, the cost of workplace fatalities in the United States was $48.7 billion.

While the world is demonstrating the virtue of compassion for the tsunami victims, a business leader is citing the value of that same compassion in our workplaces. In his column for our Web site this month, "Forward Thought Compassion," Eric Lutzo examines the role of compassion in helping business leaders understand what others want and how to help them achieve it. He writes: "One interesting fact is that within the word 'compassion' is buried the word 'passion.' When we do things we are passionate about, it shows. People cannot just see it but they can feel it. Quite often when we are passionate about our work, we go that extra mile to ensure that the project is not just done right but also with a little extra. No task is too large when we have passion for it."

He continues: "Forward-thinking leaders are passionate about their teams. In other words, they are passionate about compassion. Understanding the dynamics of their teams is not a one-time deal. As with any other organism, teams are organic they change and evolve. It is the forward-thinking leader that is constantly scanning the team to see where things are changing and what areas need to evolve."

So, along with better tools to make the business case for safety, safety and health managers also need to bring passion to their belief that workplace deaths and injuries are entirely preventable.

And speaking of passion, our graphics designer, Samantha Himes, has been hard at work for several weeks with the redesign of the magazine. We hope you'll find the new look attractive and easy to read.

We're also putting on display this month the insights of Robert Pater, a well-known safety consultant, trainer and author. Pater has a passion for helping companies improve their safety programs, and he'll be helping readers with that quest each month in his new column, "The Safety Catalyst." In his first column, Pater offers readers time-tested advice for serving as change agents in their organizations.

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