The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the division of the U.S. Department of Labor charged with protecting the safety of employees in the workplace. OSHA’s mission is to prevent construction accidents, industrial injuries, and other workplace accidents. It seeks to do this through setting and enforcing safety standards, designing and delivering education and training programs, and engaging in outreach activities.
Unfortunately, OSHA sometimes falls far short of accomplishing its mission. For example, OSHA officials admitted in November 2011 that one of the ways the agency uses to monitor workplace safety – a database tracking workplace fatalities – is deficient in several key respects. OSHA’s lack of information is troubling because people need to know how many workplace deaths occur and the reasons for them in order to improve workplace safety.
Causes of Workplace Fatalities
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 4,547 workplace fatalities in 2010. Massachusetts saw 51 workplace fatalities in 2010, down from 59 in 2009. The BLS reported that the causes of deaths in the workplace for 2010 were:
• Transportation incidents – 39 percent
• Assaults and violent acts – 18 percent
• Contact with objects or equipment – 16 percent
• Falls – 14 percent
• Exposure to harmful substances – nine percent
• Fire or explosions – four percent
OSHA Database Failure
OSHA has a Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), wherein OSHA partners with employers who have injury and fatality rates below the BLS average for their industries. In exchange for proactively working on safety measures, the employers in the VPP are exempt from regular OSHA inspections.
One of the main deficits in OSHA’s workplace fatality data is that it does not include deaths that happened at employers in the VPP. By cross-referencing OSHA data and BLS data, the Center for Public Integrity discovered that OSHA data did not include 15 workplace fatalities that occurred between 2000 and 2010 because these deaths happened at VPP participant employers.
Another area in which OSHA does not have data is workplace fatalities that occur in the 21 states that administer their own version of OSHA’s VPP.
These are major gaps in the database and make it difficult for OSHA to do its job properly.
OSHA officials say they are taking steps to fill the information gap regarding workplace fatalities in VPP participant employers. OSHA’s second-highest official concedes the importance of following up on fatalities at VPP participant employers and including that information in OSHA data. OSHA’s main office has issued memos on the topic to regional offices in the past few years.
Preventing Workplace Fatalities
OSHA and employers can take steps to make the number of workplace deaths decrease further. Some ideas include:
• Make safety a key value for owners and managers
• Train employees in safety techniques
• Engage employees in making the workplace safer
• Monitor employees’ actions to ensure compliance with safety regulations
• Analyze “near-miss” accidents so that they do not happen again and to discover any safeguards that functioned properly to prevent fatalities
People have the right to demand safe workplaces. If you have been injured in a workplace accident, contact an experienced personal injury lawyer who can help pursue proper compensation for your injuries.