Debate Over Deaths

ASSP concerned about BLS report on workplace fatality numbers

A dispute is afoot between one of the country’s prominent trade organizations and a government bureau. It comes as the world population experiences more death than usual, and it concerns workplace fatality data. 

The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), the world’s oldest professional safety organization, is concerned about the uncertainty it perceives in newly released fatality data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS reported that 4,764 fatal work injuries occurred in 2020, a 10.7 percent decrease from the previous year’s total of 5,333 and the fewest on-the-job deaths since 2013.

On the surface, we see “great news”. Digging deeper, one wonders: Have safety and fatality statistics been distorted by the pandemic? Are the apparently rosy stats misleading?

As ASSP notes, fatal occupational illnesses such as COVID-19 and work-related cancers are out of scope for this statistical report unless precipitated by an acute injury. Also, many people worked from home in 2020, meaning they were not exposed to hazards that may still exist at their workplaces upon their eventual return.

“Reacting to the latest fatality data brings unique challenges because the numbers may not paint a clear picture of the reality of 2020,” said ASSP President Brad Giles, P.E., CSP, STS, FASSP, GIOSH in a December 17 press release from the Park Ridge, Ill., association. “Any reported decrease in worker deaths is encouraging, but this data does not reflect the devastating impact of COVID-19 on many worker populations.”

Despite the reported decline in workplace fatalities, a worker still lost their life due to a work-related injury every two hours in 2020. And the fatality rate for Hispanic and Latino workers showed a slight increase year to year. While this may project as a doomsday perspective—unwelcome during difficult times—it remains worthy of investigation. 

“Most occupational incidents are preventable given today’s technologies and proven safety and health strategies,” Giles said. “Employers must be more proactive in adopting voluntary national consensus standards and implementing measures such as safety and health management systems to protect workers in all industries.”

Voluntary consensus standards promote best practices and prevent worker injuries, illnesses and fatalities. ASSP is the secretariat for many standards committees in the United States and worldwide, forming expert groups and ensuring standards are developed and revised in accordance with requirements from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

These voluntary consensus standards include recent additions we wish weren’t necessary, such as the ASSP’s Active Shooter/Armed Assailant Preparedness Plan (TR-Z590.5); but also refer to longstanding guidelines like Confined Spaces (Z117.1), Construction and Demolition Operations (A10), Fall Protection and Fall Restraint (Z359), Fleet/Motor Vehicles (Z15), Hydrogen Sulfide Training (Z390.1), Lockout, Tagout, and Alternative Methods (Z244.1), and Machine Guarding (Z11). 

While regulatory entities like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set workplace safety standards mandated by law, voluntary consensus standards provide guidelines that safety-minded organizations choose to implement because of their merit. Consensus standards reflect diverse viewpoints and represent state-of-the-art practices and technologies while addressing gaps where no regulatory standard exists in today’s rapidly changing environment.

“Voluntary consensus standards can transform safety programs and help organizations more effectively identify and eliminate hazards that lead to worker injuries, illnesses and fatalities,” Giles said. “ASSP will continue to advocate for better protection of workers to ensure they return home safe to their families every day.”

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