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What's the Current State of Workplace Safety in the U.S.?

No matter our chosen industry, most of us take the concept of workplace safety for granted. After all, wide-reaching workplace accident prevention programs and data collection have been routine since 1913, when the National Safety Council (NSC) was founded. Today, the nonprofit NSC performs a variety of services, such as offering safety training courses for employers that seek to reduce job site injuries and build a culture of safety.

Yet more than a century after the formation of the NSC, job-related accidents and fatalities remain unfortunately common. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5,147 fatal workplace injuries were reported in 2017. A full 40% of those fatalities were attributed to transportation incidents. Yet workplace accidents and injuries can be caused by a number of factors, from worker negligence or inebriation to an unsafe work environment.

Workplace Safety and Accountability

A notable recent example of dangerous working conditions is the October 2019 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, which was under construction at the time. Three workers were killed, yet only one of the bodies had been recovered from the debris as of December 6. Reports indicate that the Hard Rock collapse was preventable, and may have been the result of unscrupulous business practices. A worker who was on-site that fateful day but taking a break when the collapse occurred told reporter Lee Zurich that there were "warning signs" prior to the collapse.

The Hard Rock Hotel collapse aptly demonstrates the need for better employer accountability, especially within occupations that are notoriously dangerous. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has pushed for the exact opposite result: Under pressure from legislators, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) effectively "scaled back" its Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule in early 2019.

Workplace establishments with 250 or more employees are now only required to submit a 300A Form on an annual basis. The 300A Form is a self-reported summary of workplace injuries and illnesses. Critics of the OSHA policy change argue that large companies now have the opportunity to grossly underreport their accident and injury figures, leading to a misrepresentation of a company's job site safety record.

America's Most Dangerous Jobs

The aforementioned 2017 BLS report determined that the most dangerous civilian occupations include fishing workers, loggers, and aircraft pilots. Of course, the construction industry sees more than its fair share of injuries and fatal accidents as well. In fact, OSHA reports, "the fatal injury rate for the construction industry is higher than the national average."

Of course, the majority of construction site accidents aren't as severe as the Hard Rock hotel collapse. Common construction site hazards that can result in serious injury include falling scaffolding, lack of proper head protection, and faulty electrical wiring.

Another aspect of construction-related workplace hazards is that many industry jobs are often "at-will" employment, meaning that employees enjoy little to no job security, and are not eligible for health insurance. And that fact can be detrimental in the event of a workplace accident, where injuries can be severe and/or life-threatening.

Employer health insurance notwithstanding, it's not only Americans workers who succumb to workplace accidents. Globally, nearly 2.8 million workers die from preventable occupational accidents and diseases on an annual basis. About one-third of the world's job-related deaths occur in Asian countries.

Workplace Mental Health and Wellness

Across the globe, however, it's important to note that workplace safety encompasses mental health along with physical. And poor mental health among employees is a much larger problem than you may realize. According to Eastern Kentucky University, an estimated 9.5% of U.S. workers experience some form of depression on an annual basis. Further, "Employers lose roughly $100 billion annually due to untreated cases among their workers."

As a leading cause of lost productivity, poor mental health in the workplace negatively affects the economy as well as quality of life among individual workers. Work-related depression can manifest in a number of unhealthy ways, including excessive alcohol consumption, social isolation, and a lack of self-care.

Fortunately, there are a number of healthy coping methods that are beneficial to the overworked and depressed portion of U.S. workers. For instance, taking a few days off to rest and re-energize can make a big difference where work satisfaction is concerned. Preventative measures should not be overlooked, however, and employers should do their due diligence in ensuring a safe and positive work environment.

Safety and the Gig Economy

In a traditional workplace, third parties often help determine the safety of a particular building or job site. For instance, OSHA is the primary governing body in the realm of workplace safety. And as technology and the global workplace landscape continue to evolve, so must OSHA's regulatory standards. Occupational health and safety specialists work to examine all facets of work environments in an effort to reduce hazards and protect employees from potential dangers.

Yet OSHA has no say when it comes to the growing number of self-employed individuals navigating the U.S. job market. Remote and gig workers may enjoy their job flexibility, but they remain more vulnerable to health concerns than their counterparts with traditional jobs. Those working in the modern gig economy are essentially on their own in the event of an accident while on the clock.

All things considered, workplace accidents and injuries are preventable as long as employers follow OSHA guidelines and don't cut corners. But no matter the industry, employees should remain vigilant while performing their duties and never be afraid to stop working if they deem the environment to be unsafe.

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