It's been three weeks since I attended the National Safety Congress and Expo in Chicago, and I still keep coming back to some of the things that Paul O'Neill said in his keynote address.
O'Neill – the former Alcoa CEO, not the former New York Yankee – is a safety visionary. By championing EHS during his tenure at Alcoa, O'Neill not only transformed the company but also upended the stupid, time-honored assumption that accidents and injuries merely are collateral damage in the never-ending quest for financial largesse.
In the years since he led Alcoa and served as the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, O'Neill has devoted much of his time and energy to improving safety and health in our health care system – both for the caregivers and the patients.
He believes that our hospitals would benefit greatly from the development of a nationwide real-time safety-data system, in much the same way that Alcoa's safety culture blossomed after the company developed one early in his tenure.
In a letter to President Obama, O'Neill urged Obama to direct all VA hospitals and U.S.-based military hospitals to begin reporting all hospital-acquired infections, patient falls, medication errors and caregiver injuries within 24 hours of their occurrence.
The more I reflect on this idea, the more I realize just how profound it is.
Using IT for Good
The basic idea is to leverage our ever-increasing information-technology capabilities for good.
If we have the technology and bandwidth to stream "Breaking Bad" during our lunch hours (guilty as charged); to update our social networks on our eating habits, flight status and other minutiae; and to pick our seats for baseball games via interactive stadium maps (which is great!), then surely we have the capability to implement the kind of safety-data system that O'Neill described.
But I suggest taking it one step further.
How about requiring all employers to report all work-related fatalities – within 24 hours of their occurrence – to a national safety-data website that's accessible to the public?
Maybe that would help all of us realize what an epidemic we have on our hands.
It's one thing to see the BLS data on injuries, accidents and fatalities. But as O'Neill said, it's entirely different when "you're dealing with individuals, human lives and injuries to people."
I subscribe to a number of news feeds and Google alerts pertaining to EHS. Every day, at least a handful of those alerts deliver news of workplace fatalities. Here are a few of the recent ones:
- "An employee at the Georgia Pacific Cedar Springs (Ga.) mill has died from injuries sustained during a workplace accident. Public Affairs Manager Peggy Jaye confirmed via e-mail that Shannon Jones, 39, of Bainbridge, Ga., died Wednesday night following the accident." – The Dothan Eagle
- "Federal workplace safety officials are investigating an Oct. 7 accident that killed a Fargo electrician at a grain elevator near Harvey in central North Dakota. A crew was installing a distributor unit that was suspended from a crane when a section of metal chute broke free from the unit and fell about 120 feet, landing on 21-year-old Alex Rall as he was leaving work for the day ... " – The Dickinson Press
- "A construction worker is dead after a 30-foot piece of iron fell and struck him on the head Monday. BK Construction employee Jorge S. Rodriguez, 34, of Vera Cruz, Mexico, was attempting to move steel I-beams at the AGY plant in Aiken (Ga.) when the piece of iron fell 7 feet, hitting him on the head ... " – The Augusta Chronicle
Shannon Jones. Alex Rall. Jorge Rodriguez. These are real people, who made the ultimate sacrifice for their employers. They gave their lives, even though they shouldn't have had to.
Maybe it's time that everyone knows their names.