As we continue to broaden our collective safety knowledge and experience, it would be reasonable to expect hazards and incidents to decline in lockstep.
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Over time, rates of certain incidents have gone up and down, and some long-declining trends have experienced a sudden upswing.
Why Are Some Hazards Getting Worse?
It’s difficult to pin down exactly why certain hazards make a comeback. Most of the explanations we have are speculative and theoretical, because a thoughtful assessment of the issue would necessarily be broad, interdisciplinary, and subject to much disagreement.
The wave of Baby Boomer retirement likely plays a role. As seasoned employees leave the workforce, they take with them the operational experience and knowledge that drove innovative hazard control solutions and helped reduce various risks. The younger workforce that has stepped in to replace them might overlook, or even streamline out, these control mechanisms due to their lack of hands-on experience and hard-earned understanding of what it takes to make the worksite safer.
On top of that, there’s a prevalent idea that being parked too long in a single job is a career killer. Thus, engineers of various sub-disciplines will move from job to job before reaching the three to five year time span it would take before they can meaningfully contribute to a given site. This job-hopping is leaving many companies in a perpetual state of junior-ness, which eventually has a negative impact to operational safety.
These are plausible explanations. But it’s difficult to confirm or measure the impact of these trends. And even if we could, they would still only offer us a partial picture of why certain aspects of workplace safety are in decline.
All we know for sure is that many factors work in tandem to produce these trends, and we’re left trying to work backwards to figure out the cause while also looking ahead to how we can improve future outcomes.
Which Hazards Are Making a Comeback?
The increased prevalence of certain hazards is hard to measure, but we can use statistics on injury and fatality causation as a rough yardstick. There was a 5.7% increase in fatal workplace injuries in 2022 compared to 2021 (the latest data available). According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a worker died every 96 minutes. Looking more closely, we can see that the following hazards have played a role in this trend.
1. Process Safety Incidents
There has been a gradual uptick in incidents classified under the general category of “process safety.” This broadly encompasses operations at chemical plants and processing facilities, and the associated chemical hazards.
The reasons behind the upward trend in process safety incidents over the past 15 years are complicated and involve many of those factors described above. Major, fundamental changes to the industry and the workforce have resulted in a gradual loss of corporate memory, and the rates of serious process safety incidents has seemed to follow.
The fact is, process safety is considered a specialization because the factors involved are complex. Getting a handle on them can take time and experience. When that experience is lost, so are some of the safeguards that keep these facilities running smoothly and predictably.
2. Heat Injuries and Heat-Related Illness
Awareness and prevention of heat stress and heatstroke has improved over a number of years. Administrative controls for heat hazards have also become a mainstay for companies that conduct outdoor work in hot weather.
We’ve made progress on the control front, but the outcomes have been getting worse. That’s at least partly due to the fact that it’s simply getting hotter faster than new innovations can mitigate the hazard.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that fatalities from exposure to extreme heat increased by 16 percent in 2022 compared with 2021. The data is not available yet for 2023, but I would speculate that this will jump yet again as this was the hottest year on record.
This is a difficult one to tackle. There is an ongoing effort to recognize heat hazards and mitigate the impacts administratively, but outdoor heat can only be managed so much. We’ll need some major innovation in the coming years if we are going to buck this trend.
3. Falling and Moving Objects
Admittedly, it’s difficult to classify this one as a re-emerging hazard because it is really many things.
It certainly seems to be getting worse, however, if we look at the Work Related Injury Statistics Query System (Work-RISQS). That is NIOSH’s system for tracking and querying “nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments” and it provides data on the various causes of occupational injuries and illness for comparison.
Comparing the data from 2000, 2010, and 2020 (while attempting to correct for the inconsistency of the classifications used), we see that there was a trend upwards in contact with “objects.” That includes anything from shifting equipment to falling tools and loose materials.
While “beware of objects” might not be a very useful warning to workers, this data still tells us something important. Workers being struck by objects implies certain things for safety management. For instance, it indicates that hazard assessment and controls are not adequately in place, simultaneous operations are not being coordinated properly, and materials and equipment with the potential to injure workers are not being secured. That, and there may be issues related to situation awareness, like lack of training, an undersupervised workforce, or pressure to rush through tasks.
Check out our free whitepaper on 10 EHS Dashboards That Drive Your Decisions for a Healthy and Safe Workplace!
4. Unintentional Overdoses
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unintentional overdoses at work increased by 13.1% in 2022, hitting a peak of 525 US workers. The trend has been increasing annually since 2012. In Massachusetts in 2016 and 2017, unintentional drug overdoses were the leading cause of workplace fatality!
The hazard isn’t new, of course, but the consequences have become more catastrophic because of the nature of the drugs consumed. The opioid epidemic and its effects on the workplace are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say it’s a growing issue that deserves the attention of safety professionals.
Opioids are a prime target for consideration since use and abuse have been on a major upswing. A National Safety Council survey found that 75% of employers report that opioid use has impacted their workplace, and those are only the ones aware of it and willing to report.
5. Harassment and Violence
Without careful analysis, a trend may appear to crop up out of nowhere when it is really an artifact of the tracking process.
The apparent increase in harassment incidents could be mostly attributed to the fact that it was not heretofore seen as a hazard at all, and our attitudes have evolved to the point that we at least recognize it now. Mechanisms are built into HSSE systems more consistently to facilitate reporting and raise awareness and handle incidents. But the presence of the hazard is still conspicuous in a few frightening lagging metrics that are on the rise, namely homicide and suicide
There has been an upward trend of suicide in the workplace since the data was first tracked in by the Bureau of Labor in 1992. Thankfully, we’ve seen a dip after the high-water mark of 307 in 2019 but it may be both insignificant and transient because of the surrounding circumstances. COVID had such a staggering effect on workplaces that it could very well be a major factor in that reduction. However, it remains to be seen if the trend will rebound in coming years.
We can think of workplace homicides and suicides as the culmination of several poorly controlled hazards, or the effect of hazards we have failed to recognize, particularly work-related psychosocial hazards. Some telling trends (like the fact that minority groups and women and still being killed in greater numbers per capita) suggest that work culture, diversity, and equality are lingering factors that may contribute to the problem.
A Safety Professional’s Job Is Never Done
While we have undoubtedly made progress in workplace safety, none of us can rest on our laurels. These trends show us that safety is not a series of static achievements, but a continually evolving process. As workplaces change, new challenges will present themselves. Through our collective efforts, we can face them and continue making progress in keeping workers safe.
Ready to learn more? Check out our free webinar, 10 Safety Lessons I Wish Someone Had Told Me!
Sign up to the Safeopedia Newsletter to get more great safety info delivered right to your inbox!