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Zero Hour for Workplace Safety

May 30, 2023
Have we turned the corner or just painted ourselves into one?

There weren’t any parades held or federal holidays declared on May 11, 2023, and whatever celebrations that might’ve occurred were definitely muted, but nevertheless, the COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended that day. In terms of long national nightmares, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly achieved its own brand of notoriety, but maybe it’s just as well that it ended not with a bang but with a whimper.

The pandemic has already left a big enough hole in the fabric of our society, and to suggest that things are “back to normal” now would be to deny the reality of what has actually happened over the past three years. By almost any benchmark, things got bad and then they got worse and so far they haven’t really gotten better yet. Consider the following:

Active shootings. If it seems like every day you wake up to news of yet another active shooting incident, that’s because it’s true. According to Gun Violence Archive, there have been more mass shooting incidents in the U.S. in 2023 than there have been days in the year (227 as of May 19)—a mass shooting is one in which at least four people were killed or shot.

Workplace injuries and fatalities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatal work injuries were up by 8.9% in 2021 (the most recent year where stats have been compiled). And total workplace injuries were up by 6.3% over the same period. In particular, work-related fatalities due to slips, trips and falls increased 5.6% in 2021.

Drug abuse. More Americans died from drug overdoses in 2022 than ever before, according to the CDC, at an estimated count of 109,680 people. Fentanyl poisoning is largely to blame for the record high in overdose deaths. Meanwhile, a report from Quest Diagnostics indicates that the percentage of U.S. workers testing positive for marijuana following an on-the-job accident in 2022 was at the highest level in 25 years: 7.3%. Over the past decade, post-accident marijuana positivity—reflected in urine drug tests—increased 204%.

Mental health issues. A Harvard Business Review study conducted during the pandemic revealed that 84% of U.S. workers have experienced at least one workplace incident that negatively impacted their mental health. And according to the World Health Organization, on a worldwide level, roughly 12 billion workdays are lost every year because of depression or anxiety, which costs employers $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

Death on the highways. The Department of Transportation has set a goal of zero roadway fatalities with its National Roadway Safety Strategy—a laudable goal, but based on the past two years, achieving that objective is still a long ways off. In 2021 and again in 2022, more than 46,000 people died on a US highway.

But before getting too depressed about these statistics, let’s look more closely at the zero-based approach to safety. The National Safety Council’s Work to Zero initiative, for instance, has a simply stated objective: to eliminate workplace fatalities by 2050 through the adoption of emerging technology. There is a rising attitude in safety circles that all workplace accidents and fatalities are preventable, and thus can be prevented, whether through better processes, better procedures, or better technology.

The EHS Today 2023 Guide to Safety Technology, written by contributing editor David Sparkman, took a hard look at the zero-based approach and its emergence throughout safety departments and corporate boardrooms alike as the mindset companies are adopting in this post-pandemic world. As Sparkman notes, “From now on, you can expect that constant improvement will not merely function as an ideal but will be assumed to be just another tool for getting to the point where any accidents and injuries are assumed to be unacceptable.”

The adoption of safety technology offers opportunities to achieve the optimum level of workplace safety (i.e., zero incidents and fatalities) that Sparkman notes is “rapidly becoming the standard. The pressure is growing on corporate leadership, middle managers and front-line employees to up their game when it comes to creating and maintaining worksite and public safety initiatives.”

There are two huge obstacles to achieving that kind of lofty zero-based goal, however:

1) According to the 2023 Guide, nearly half (48%) of companies surveyed saw no increase at all in their budgets for safety technology this year, and another 5% actually saw a reduction in their safety tech budgets.

2) Besides budgetary restrictions, the other biggest challenge obstructing the adoption of safety tech in the workplace is unfamiliarity with the technology itself. We hear a lot about artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, the Internet of Things, localization, smart PPE—but how do these things actually work and what ROI do they offer to a company’s workforce? As you would imagine, these are tough questions, and you can expect to see EHS Today expand its coverage of safety technologies to offer some real-world answers to these questions. Getting senior management’s buy-in to the value of safety technology will be essential to achieving any zero-based goals.

About the Author

Dave Blanchard | Editor-in-Chief / Senior Director of Content

During his career Dave Blanchard has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeek, EHS Today, Material Handling & Logistics, Logistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. Prior to joining Endeavor/Informa/Penton, he spent a decade covering the artificial intelligence industry. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. 

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