Let's Make the Reason for Workers' Memorial Day a Thing of the Past

Let's Make the Reason for Workers' Memorial Day a Thing of the Past

Let's Make the Reason for Workers' Memorial Day a Thing of the Past

Every worker deserves to make it home safe every day.

Deborah Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

The father of one of my best friends in college was killed in a coal mine in southwest Virginia when she was a young girl. She carries that loss with her every day of her life. I was in her wedding party and while she did not dwell on it, I know her walk down the aisle was bittersweet because her dad was not there.

At the National Safety Council, we believe we can eliminate preventable deaths in our lifetime. Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28 reminds us that our mission is far from over. This day also reminds us that for every worker lost, there are many more people affected than we count in the statistics.

Preventable deaths are tragedies because they should not have happened. For 14 families every day, they experience a mundane moment, someone leaves for work and says goodbye or heads out before the sun comes up – not realizing it may be the last moment they share with the people they love.

The most disconcerting part is that despite all the advances we have made in safety, workplace fatalities are on the rise. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, U.S. workplace fatalities reached 5,190 in 2016 – the third consecutive annual increase and the first time in nearly a decade the number has surpassed 5,000. Is it because the economy is improving? Are we facing different hazards? Or are we becoming complacent about the everyday risks we still face on the job?

During my days with the National Transportation Safety Board, when an incident occurred we conducted a thorough investigation to determine the root causes. We had to get down to the details of why the incident occurred, so we could do our best to prevent future crashes, derailments or system failures.

To impact workplace safety, we also need to look to the data to identify why these deaths are happening and focus our efforts. Here are some details we should pay attention to:

  • Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of workplace death, totaling 2,083 fatalities in 2016. To help protect workers, employers can put transportation policies in place and provide training. NSC offers a free Safe Driving Kit. We work closely with employers through Our Driving Concern programs in Texas and Oklahoma, and we urge everyone to sign the attentive driver pledge during Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
  • Deaths among workers 55 and older totaled 1,848 in 2016 – a 9.9% increase from 2015. Baby boomers are aging and many are staying in the workforce longer, which may be contributing to this rise in deaths. Also, injuries suffered by people in this age group tend to be more serious. Employers should take steps to address the risks that face all employees, but the risks are not always the same for every worker. While older workers are more seasoned and experienced, they may not be able to perform the same tasks they did earlier in their career. Recognizing the risks is the first step in creating workplaces that can accommodate workers throughout their lives.
  • Contract worker deaths totaled 856 in 2016. Contract workers may perform higher-risk jobs without the benefit of management supervision. Employers can help protect contract or temporary workers by including a formal contractor management program in their overall health and safety plan. In addition, working with a staffing firm that has earned the Safety Standard of Excellence mark, allows both the host employer and the staffing firm to discuss their respective roles regarding worker safety.
  • Slip, trip and fall deaths totaled 849 in 2016 – an increase of 6% from 2015. A worker does not have to fall from a significant height to suffer fatal injuries. When working from a ladder, roof or scaffolding, supervisors should first determine whether working from a height is absolutely necessary. If so, it is important to plan ahead, assess the risk and use the appropriate protective equipment.
  • Violence in the workplace increased 22 percent in 2016, now totaling over 850 deaths. All employers should develop an emergency action plan that includes employee training, conducting mock exercises and adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. Our Emergency Preparedness training can help employers prepare to keep workers safe in an unsafe situation. Local law enforcement can also serve as an outstanding resource for your business.
  • Overdoses from non-medical use of drugs or alcohol while on the job increased to 217 in 2016, a 32% increase from 2015. Employers play a key role in ensuring workers with substance abuse issues receive the support they need. Workers who are encouraged to enter treatment by their employers are much more likely to stick with it. The NSC Prescription Drug Employer Kit provides model drug-free workplace policies as well as useful resources for staff.

In addition to paying attention to the data above, employers should also be looking at their own numbers to see the biggest risks facing their workers. Committing to eliminating all preventable workplace deaths may seem like a daunting task, but when you think of the 5,190 families and communities that carry the loss of loved ones for a lifetime, it is the only acceptable goal.

In the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." Safety professionals are the most committed individuals I’ve met, so I know together we can help make sure that instead of memorializing lives lost at work, we can celebrate all the milestones they will enjoy with their families for years to come.

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