Thursday, April 15, 2004

What OSHA Investigates

Not the two biggest killers of American Workers

Victor Sirmons, 40, of Fort Pierce, Florida was killed Tuesday when a forklift he was driving overturned on top of him. This was a tragic incident for Sirmons, his family and friends, but that's not what I'm writing about here. I'm writing about this paragraph in the article about Sirmon's death:
OSHA routinely investigates workplace accidents when someone is seriously injured or killed, except in the case of traffic accidents and workplace violence, said Luis Santiago, an OSHA area director.
These are the two leading causes of death in American workplaces. Fatal highway incidents were the most frequent type of fatal workplace event in 2002, accounting for about a quarter of all fatal work injuries. Workplace violence -- including assaults and suicides-- accounted for 15% of all work-related fatal occupational injuries in 2002. So why doesn't OSHA inspect? Partly because it seems as if nothing can be done by the empoyer to prevent these fatalities. But is that true?

Traffic accidents are generally thought to be caused by either unsafe driving on the part of the worker (his/her fault) or unsafe driving on the part of another driver (clearly not preventable). So what is to be done?

I wrote about this in an article, "Acts of God, Acts of Man," published in Working USA last year where I made the point that not everyone, especially the U.S. army, thinks that driving accidents are unpreventable. The Washington Post, reported last May that since the first Gulf War which say an alarming number of traffic accident fatalities, the military has made major -- and reportedly successful -- efforts to reduce injuries and fatalities resulting from driving accidents.
Compared with that from the first Gulf War, data from the latest fighting also reveal a dramatic reversal in the ratio of combat to noncombat casualties.

Twelve years ago, 50 percent more soldiers died in accidents (235) than in battle (147). In the recent war, there were only a third as many noncombat fatalities (36) as deaths in battle (101). The same pattern appears to hold for nonfatal injuries, with the data on evacuated Army troops showing that 107 had noncombat injuries, compared with 118 who had combat wounds.

The army attributed the steep drop in noncombat deaths and injuries, in part, to the Army's effort to improve driver safety and to ensure that soldiers were well-rested when operating vehicles. In the first Gulf War, motor vehicle accidents alone accounted for about half of all serious injuries. "Because this was such a motorized effort, we expected many more accidents than we actually saw. I think this is a definitive success story," [an Army spokesperson] said.
Add to this factors such as poor vehicle maintenance and pressure to get more work done in less time and pretty soon you have enough factors to at least merit an occasional inquiry into the causes of many work-related traffic accidents.

Until the early 1990's OSHA did not consider workplace violence to be a preventable hazard that should fall within OSHA's enforcement jurisdiction. In the early '90s, however, CalOSHA issued pioneering guidelines that addressed workplace violence like any other workplace hazard. First, there were factors that put certain employees at higher risk of assault, e.g. handling money, working in violence-prone neighborhoods at night, etc. Second, there are a number of preventable measures that could be taken to prevent violence: panic alarms and adequate staffing in mental health institutions, and video cameras and lock-drop safes in all-night convenience stores.

In the late 1990's, OSHA published two guidance documents on workplace violence, one aimed at violence against health care and social service workers, and the other addresses violence against late-night retail employees.

And if violence could be predicted and prevented, then employers could be cited for failure to take preventive measures. Following CalOSHA's example, OSHA handed out several significant General Duty Clause citations in the 1990's against health care establishments for not preventing assaults against workers. Since the late 1990's, however, OSHA has not cited any employers for workplace violence. During the latter days of the Clinton administration, OSHA's solicitors grew increasingly reluctant to pursue cases because they lost a case on appeal, and Bush's OSHA is not exactly known for sticking its neck out on any pioneering issues -- especially those many still do not consider to be preventable.

I will admit that traffic accidents and workplace violence may not appear to be as easily preventable as trench collapses or chemical exposures. They don't seem to be natural fits for OSHA. But twenty years ago, health care unions were laughed out of OSHA for daring to suggest that the agency may want to get involved in communicable diseases like hepatitis B and AIDS.

Traffic accidents and workplace violence are the two leading causes of workplace death in America. Many of these fatalities are predictable and preventable. Addressing them may require more reseach, creative thinking, and some political courage on OSHA's part. But I'm sure that the families and friends of the 2,989 workers who were killed in highway accidents or violent assaults in 2002 would appreciate it if the agency would pay a bit more attention to these hazards and not just dismiss them as problems that aren't worth investigating.