National Safety Survey: Accidents Happen ... Or Do They?

Aug. 1, 2010
When asked about the current state of workplace safety, EHS professionals responded in droves – but didn’t always agree.

A record number of more than 1,200 EHS professionals responded to EHS Today's annual National Safety Survey to share information about themselves, their work environments and their views on the current state of workplace safety.

With survey questions addressing issues including ergonomics regulation, OSHA's performance and the implications of disasters like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion and the BP oil spill, some of the comments grew heated. There was no doubt about it, EHS leaders were ready to talk — but not necessarily agree.


When asked, “What lessons could the EHS community learn from some of the deadly disasters in 2010, such as the Upper Big Branch Mine collapse and the BP oil spill?” responses were mixed. The hundred of EHS professionals who keyed in answers to this question unwittingly created a sort of debate: Is every workplace accident preventable?

Various survey respondents claimed “Accidents are going to happen” or pointed out that preparing for every possible scenario just isn't realistic.

“Accidents happen! It is not possible to prevent ALL contingencies from occurring without causing a paralyzing impairment to industry,” one respondent wrote. “The oil industry has spent billions of dollars for spill response preparedness. The management problems that led to the gulf incident were not predictable and their consequences could not be predicted.”

This survey participant, however, went on to add: “The Big Branch mine incident appears, on the outside, to be an act of negligence and misdirection by an individual. Methods of outside reporting and enforcement might have averted the disaster.”

“ACCIDENTS happen!!” asserted another respondent, who followed up with a plea for more training to “conquer the unexpected disaster.”

Many safety stakeholders, however, would argue that there is no such thing as an accident, and that these tragic events — as well as more minor workplace incidents that occur every day — can be prevented. As one survey participant pointed out, “Accidents don't just happen. There are several steps that lead up to them and are usually preventable.”

“It's imperative that we all maintain an approach that is focused beyond compliance and that works to be two steps ahead of potential problems. This requires diligence, communication and concern at all times,” explained one EHS leader. “Even so, a tragic event may happen to any of our organizations at any time even when we're confident that we're on our guard and prepared. Those are the defining moments of our careers. We can either lay down and give up or find the underlying cause(s) that initially escaped our detection and anticipation. We have to look at national safety tragedies with a heart for the victims involved and a determination to learn from them in a constructive way that will help tragic events from occurring at our facilities.”

In order to prevent these large-scale workplace catastrophes, one respondent suggested that companies need to do a better job of developing and implementing site-specific, worst-case-scenario plans; regulatory agencies must step up inspection and enforcement efforts, especially for companies with repeat violations; and regulatory agencies should be willing to shut down these bad actors. Others agreed that facilities should be shut down entirely, rather than getting away with a fine, if they have exhibited unsafe environments.

“You cannot keep doing the same things, the same way, and expect different results,” one EHS leader wrote.

Severay respondents suggested that money was considered more important than safety leading up to these catastrophes, with one stating: “Complacency, greed and self interests run the political and industrial fields. Big Brother only watches over you … after you make a mistake, not correct it before it happens.”

“How about a little preplanning instead of reacting?” asked another respondent.

Many EHS leaders offered the simple directive to “prepare” or “plan ahead.” Or, as one respondent so succinctly put it, “Be prepared for the BIG one!”


Respondents rated OSHA as the occupational health and safety agency they considered most effective in meeting its statutory responsibility, with 38 percent casting their vote for the agency. (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health came in second with 26 percent of the vote, followed by EPA with 17 percent and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board with 15 percent. MSHA was marked lowest, with only 4 percent of respondents considering it most effective.)

In addition, most respondents viewed new OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels favorably, with 3 percent rating his performance excellent, 24 percent rating his performance good and 27 percent saying he was average. Four percent considered his performance poor.

Allen Cortez, director of safety and administration for Hanover Co., thinks that some of OSHA's moves under the new administration will be beneficial to the industry. In particular, he's focused on the cranes and derricks standard.

“I think the crane standard is something that we've needed for quite some time, and I'm anxious to see that put in place,” Cortez says. “I think that all companies should be required to adhere to a crane standard. I think there's some other areas [such as OSHA's focus on recordkeeping] that will have some benefit, but I'm not sure it's where the rubber meets the road for actual builders and people exposed to safety hazards on the job every day.”

Many EHS leaders shared the occupational health and safety challenges they would most like to see OSHA address in the coming year, with common responses including:

  • Updating PELs
  • Ergonomics
  • Saving the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP)
  • Combustible dust
  • Fall protection
  • Recordkeeping
  • Simplifying regulations
  • Crane safety

Other respondents mentioned distracted driving, confined space safety, the challenges presented by shrinking budgets, the aging work force, indoor air quality and more.

One participant wanted OSHA to learn “how to be the enforcer yet still provided PRACTICAL consultative services, particularly to small businesses,” while another stated, “OSHA/MSHA can't make a workplace safe. Companies need to own safety and make the necessary expenditures.”


Many survey respondents rallied for an increased focus on enforcement, particularly in high-risk occupations, while others worried that OSHA was being too aggressive in this area.

“OSHA is now turning away from working with companies to make them safer places to work,” one EHS leader complained, adding that the agency is “going back to just being the sheriff.”

“They are regulation and penalty [hungry],” the respondent continued. “They have stated several times that they will get companies to comply by raising fines and increasing audits. I understand that regulations and enforcement is necessary … but they are moving to an extreme.”

“OSHA makes everything seem so black and white with no gray areas,” another said. “No company is perfect. Neither are most companies so bad, careless or indifferent that they dream up ways to put their employees in harm's way day after day.”

The survey results showed that even if EHS leaders consider enforcement important, they don't think it's the only solution. Compliance and cooperative programs, like VPP, also received a fair share of attention in the survey comments.


Don Henning, project manager at Clean Air Engineering, explained that his organization currently is in the process of trying to obtain VPP status.

“Our company, for a long time, has tried to get everybody involved with the safety programs that we have, and this concentration on trying to achieve VPP has been successful in getting everybody on board,” he says.

Since Clean Air Engineering has begun working toward VPP status, Henning says the company experienced higher training rates, more input from management groups and higher attendance at safety meetings.

“I've seen a lot of benefits from it,” he says. “I think any government agency that tries to help the industry achieve a better safety and knowledge record and better safety programs is a better way to go than to do the ‘gotchas’ all the time to just find the violations.”

Henning wasn't alone. Many respondents used the survey to stress the importance of maintaining VPP despite recent funding and program management concerns.

“Back off on the enforcement initiative and concentrate again on the cooperative programs such as partnerships and VPP, ” one respondent wrote.

“It is silly to take away a program that has been working for 26 years because they want to focus on enforcement as the main tool to keep employees safe,” another commented.

Other survey participants asked for “more VPP” or “more VPP-like programs” while others demanded, “Don't throw out VPP, ” “Fund the VPP effort” and “Keep VPP funded!!!!!”

According to Henning, VPP can help companies with good intentions improve their safety programs. For this reason and others, he wants to see VPP survive.

“I think there's a lot of companies that really want help,” he said. “They want to do things correctly, it's just a matter of not having the knowledge. I think this program helps them get there.”


Fifty-eight percent of National Safety Survey respondents indicated that they have responsibility for ergonomics in their organizations. Sprains/strains and back injuries were the most commonly cited injuries that respondents said they are working to actively target in their facilities. Not surprisingly, the survey results were peppered with mentions of ergonomics.

While many respondents stressed the need to address ergonomics, they weren't convinced a regulation was the answer.

“Effective [ergonomic] regulations would be very difficult to promulgate,” one participant wrote. “Proper machine guarding is easy to evaluate and regulate. Ergonomics, with its many variables and infinite levels from good to bad, is not easy to judge. OSHA should increase education and other resources for employers before issuing complex regulations on ergonomics.”

“OSHA can write the standards, but it has to be implemented with training at the work force level to make a difference,” explained a respondent. Another pointed out that best work practices are most effective, because an ergonomics standard would be “too complex and ineffective.”

“Targeting industries for ergonomic programs seems adequate rather than applying one standard to all industries,” one participant explained, while another stated: “Awareness is the most important factor. To start making unnecessary rules and setting fines is not the answer in these times.”

Other respondents were concerned about employees blaming off-the-job musculoskeletal injuries on workplace incidents. “Get real and realize that the majority of these ‘injuries’ are related to the individual's lifestyle and the employer often gets scapegoated by unscrupulous doctors and employees,” said one EHS leader.

“Remember that not everything is the employer's fault,” another noted. “As we age, we are going to have more aches and pains, possibly have some age-related hearing loss or vision problems. That doesn't mean the company we work for is responsible for everything. Every job has some ergonomic issues when inspected closely.”

Finally, another participant said the EHS community must be “very careful” with ergonomics.

“As OSHA continues to pile on new regulation, I have a deep concern that the small and intermediate employers will give up in frustration and close facilities, thus creating job loss. Everything has a price,” the respondent wrote. “Can a business successfully pass on added costs to the consumer in a globally competitive market? Foreign competition doesn't play on the same field as the U.S.”


Whether EHS leaders would welcome a formal standard or not, ergonomics continued to crop up in the responses to the question asking EHS leaders where they would most like to see improvement in their safety and health programs. Other areas EHS professionals would like to improve include:

  • Communications
  • Training
  • Accountability
  • PPE
  • Incentives and recognition
  • Cell phone policies/ distracted driving
  • Employee buy-in
  • Safety culture
  • Employee weight management and fitness
  • Budget/financial needs

But the most common answer in this category, by far, was the need for improved management support, commitment and ownership.

“Before we are able to improve on safety anywhere in my organization, our upper management will need to get on board a let everyone know they are supportive,” one respondent wrote.

“I would like to see upper management push safe work practices as hard as they push production,” commented a respondent, while another lamented the fact that middle management at his company doesn't seem to understand that safety is a full-time job.

Cortez said that Hanover Co. is fortunate to have a supportive executive group “that understands how important safety is to the success of the company and the welfare and morale of the employees who work for them.”

“Safety is just part of the core value of the company along with schedule, quality or budget,” he said. “I think if more companies were open about that [safety hazards], they would step up and say, ‘This needs to be addressed, and here's what we're going to do to be proactive.’”

Cortez also drew attention to the fact that shrinking safety budgets could put some EHS programs — and worker safety — at risk. (This year, 15 percent of EHS leaders reported that their safety budgets had decreased in 2010, compared to 23 percent last year.)

“It's up to us to stand up and say that [safety] has got to continue to be as important as the rest of the business is,” Cortez said. “We're here to protect the people, and your employees are your most valuable asset.”

At the end of the day, keeping employees safe, healthy and productive is no accident. After all, as one respondent noted in the survey, “EHS is a 24-hour job that never quits.”


Less than $35,000 7% $35,000-$44,000 9% $45,000-$54,000 14% $55,000-$64,000 15% $65,000-$74,000 11% $75,000-$84,000 12% $85,000-$94,000 10% $95,000-$104,000 9% More than $105,000 13% Total 100%


Safety 93% Industrial Hygiene 57% Occupational Health 62% Environmental Compliance 55% Emergency Preparedness 71% Ergonomics 58% Fire Protection 56% Workers' Compensation 35%


Excellent 3% Good 24% Average 27% Fair 7% Poor 4% Do not know 34% Total 100%

EHS Leaders At a Glance

of survey respondents work full-time in EHS.

considered themselves “adequately educated and trained” for their EHS responsibilities.

hold a college degree (bachelor's through doctoral).

claimed that top management within their organization provides active, visible support for occupational safety and health.

said upper management does not provide active, visible support.

Injuries and illnesses most frequently targeted by these EHS leaders include: 1) sprains and strains; 2) back injuries; 3) arm and hand injuries; 4) falls; and 5) hearing loss.

of EHS leaders said safety was on par with production at their organizations.


Increase more than 10% 5% Increase 1-10% 12% Stay the same 54% Decrease 1-10% 10% Decrease more than 10% 5% Do not know 14% Total 100%


Certified Safety Professional 68% Certified Industrial Hygienist 15% Certified Hazardous Materials Manager 24% Certified Occupational Health Nurse 2% Qualified Environmental Professional 21%

No Whining Zone

EHS professionals apparently need to have a tough skin. While many survey participants indicated that they receive few to no complaints and that their work force exhibits a strong safety culture, others had a different story to tell.

Some of the common complaints respondents reported hearing about their organizations' health and safety programs are outlined below:

“Accidents don't happen to me — why do I need to take all the safety precautions?”

“I don't want to wear eye protection.”

“Safety is boring.”

“It is too complicated.”

“It is too intrusive.”

“Damn, I have to go to driver training again?”

“It takes too long to implement all the safety requirements. I could have the job already done.”

“The videos are old and outdated.”

“There are no rewards for good performance.”

“I've been doing this work for 10 years and nothing has happened.”

“The safety guy is a pain.”

“Too much paperwork!”

Does any of this sound familiar? Keep some of these complaints in mind during training and communications to be sure all employees understand the importance of safety.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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