Workplace Deaths Spike Despite Safety Upgrades

By Rita Pyrillis

Jun. 22, 2016

Workplace deaths and injuries are on the rise, having reached their highest levels since 2008, despite dramatic improvements in worker-safety practices over the past few decades.

According to a recent study by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes health and safety, 4,132 workers died of unintentional injuries in the workplace in 2014, up 6 percent from the previous year, reflecting the largest spike in 20 years, according to safety expert John Dony.

“Forty years ago, we had lots of people dying from doing very dangerous work, but we realized that we need to put people in harnesses when they’re working on tall buildings, and we need to develop a system for reporting accidents,” said Dony, director of the Campbell Institute, the research arm of the National Safety Council. “We still have a good story to tell around workplace safety in the United States, but the fact that we’ve had a long history of maturity and improvement and yet we are seeing an increase in deaths and injuries is troubling.”

According to the council’s report, which is based on federal data, certain industries have seen a sharper rise in unintentional injuries such as falls, motor vehicle accidents, machinery accidents and exposure to harmful substances.

For employers, this can mean higher workers’ compensation costs and more indirect consequences like lost productivity, higher training costs to replace injured workers, lower employee morale and greater absenteeism. According to a 2016 study by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, U.S. businesses spend about $1 billion a week in workers’ compensation costs for the worst occupational injuries. These include overexertion because of lifting, pulling or throwing, falling, being struck by an object and roadway accidents.

Older workers are being killed or injured in greater numbers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 1,691 fatalities among workers 55 and older — a 4 percent increase over 2013. A recent report by Washington state’s department of labor found that more than half of workplace deaths in 2015 involved people over 50.

An aging workforce is likely one factor contributing to the increase in workplace deaths and injuries, Dony said, adding that it’s not clear if physical limitations associated with aging are to blame.

Whatever the reasons, employers need to do a better job of making their workplaces safer, he said.

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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