Where’s the outrage?

4,690 deaths on the job in 2010: What “acceptable losses” mean to the EHS profession

June 6, 2012


An acceptable loss is a sacrifice that is deemed an acceptable cost of doing business.

The U.S. public is in no mood to fight for further worker health and safety improvements. Today, an unspoken consensus exists: an acceptable level of risk and human loss in the country’s workplaces has been reached. There is no outrage, outside of the unions, no protests, little activism, and worst of all, no vision for worker safety articulated
on a par with environmentalism. President Obama in his 2012 Earth Day Proclamation succinctly stated the environmental stakes: “to leave our children a safe, sustainable future.”

Our national disinterest in workplace safety and health is nothing new. During construction of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914, about 5,600 U.S. workers died of disease and accidents. (About 22,000 French workers died of disease and accidents prior to the U.S. takeover of canal construction.) There’s no record of public outcry or Congressional inquiries. Out of sight, out of mind.

In 1912, according to the National Safety Council, 18,000-21,000 workers died of work-related injuries in the U.S. In 1913, the Bureau of Labor put the toll at 23,000. Again, no protests, no investigations, save for muckraking journalists. The need for jobs for millions of arriving immigrants trumped safety. Nine million immigrants arrived in the U.S. between 1900-1910. After World War II, much of the working class climbed into middle class suburban comfort. Again income trumped safety. The 1970s proved a wild and woolly time, with newly-born OSHA rolling out standards left and right and conducting upwards of 70,000 to 80,000 inspections annually. Business was outraged, a “STOP OSHA” campaign was launched, unions counterattacked in defending and advocating for standards, but the public? It sat on the sidelines, silent.

Since then, OSHA has faded dramatically (issuing one standard every eight years on average, inspections half of those in the ’70s, and generous penalty settlement agreements anywhere from 40% to 90%, according to one compliance officer who requested anonymity for this article). Declining fatality (20 years ago 6,217 workers died on the job) and injury rates have muted any sense of urgency. Mainstream media is disinterested and disconnected from blue-collar America (little subscription potential). Washington lawmakers have failed to pass any significant workplace safety and health laws. Both the White House and the Department of Labor have failed to set any goals for improving workplace safety and health. Only catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Upper Big Branch mine collapse briefly capture the public’s eye.

Imagine if President Obama in his Workers’ Memorial Day Proclamation this past April committed to cutting workplace fatalities and injuries in half by 2025, something akin to President Kennedy committing to putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Safety and health pros know the galvanizing effect of setting goals, but Presidents rarely talk about worker safety, let alone raise the stakes (and business costs) by proclaiming goals.

Unlike environmentalism, there are not millions of students, teachers, activists, and elected officials demanding a healthy future for generations of workers to come. The work that takes place inside offices, factories, warehouses, on rails, shipping lanes, and interstates, on construction sites and farms and ranches does not threaten vulnerable children, save for farming. The public’s distance from workplace risks is a major reason for its acceptance of a death toll that is empty of any personal associations, except in the case of victims’ families. EPA has a budget 15 times the size of OSHA’s because environmentalism enjoys public and political support, grassroots activism, and media attention OSHA can only dream of. Air pollution, water pollution, lead poisoning, Superfund sites, and hazmat spills are not distant threats; they threaten backyards and communities. For the public, that’s too close.

To be sure, not everyone has succumbed to the concept of acceptable workplace injury and illness losses. Not union safety and health leaders like Bill Borwegen, Mike Wright, Jim Fredericks, Eric Frumin, and Peg Seminario. Not activists like Ralph Nader (still), Garrett Brown, Ron Hayes, Billy Robbins, Celeste Monforton, Liz Borkowski, Nancy Lessin, Michael Silverstein, Mary DeVany, Andrew Cutz and Joel Shufro. Not OSHA bureaucrats like Charles Adkins and Mike Connors, nor agency political appointees such as Dr. John Howard, Jordan Barab, Deb Berkowitz and Dr. David Michaels.

They possess the passion, but wield little power (small budgets, no great numbers of followers, limited access to the media and lawmakers).

The professional safety and health societies have not remained silent. This year began with ASSE sending out a press release with President Terrie Norris declaring: “A statistical plateau of worker fatalities is not an achievement, but evidence that this nation’s effort to protect workers is stalled. These statistics call for nothing less than a new paradigm in the way this nation protects workers.”

But who will bankroll a new paradigm? Institutional advocates of workplace safety are clearly stunted by a lack of funding. OSHA ($564 million), the Chemical Safety Board ($13 million), MSHA ($384 million), and NIOSH ($128 million) have mere pocket change for budgets, compared to EPA’s $8.3 billion budget.

Public apathy does not extend to several thousand corporate cultures. Many fly the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program flag. Others spend five, six or seven-figures annually on high-end consulting services such as DuPont Sustainable Solutions, BST/DEKRA, ORC/Mercer, Aon, DNV, and BSI America. An army of small, often one-man-band EHS consultants, some very profitable, serve the middle market. The low-end, made up of millions of small shops and contractors, goes largely unattended, and is where many of the injuries and fatalities occur.

But since the Great Global Recession of 2008 to 2012, corporate money and manpower for EHS initiatives is tight, especially beyond the multinationals and their global EHS management systems. “We need to remind businesses that they should not cut back on occupational safety and health systems,” ASSE President Norris said. “If they do, it will come back to severely haunt them in the future in the guise of increased health care and workers’ comp costs, production delays, reputation damage and much, much more.”

Still, according to ISHN’s 2012 White Paper reader poll, one in five EHS pros face budget cuts in this year; 12% will make do with smaller staffs; 44% will work longer hours and 46% say they will take on more work and more stress.

“I see EHS continually being pushed to operate on less and less money,” says safety manager Dan O’Brien.

 The scramble for EHS resources is another consequence of the nation’s disinterest in workplace injuries and deaths. Public pressure on companies to improve safety and health is just about nil. But the power of public pressure becomes clear when giants like Apple and Nike lose control of workplace safety and health in their global supply chains, and the media jumps on stories such as the wave of worker suicides at Foxconn, a Taiwanese Apple supplier. The U.S. public it seems cares more about protecting its popular brands than its homegrown workforce.

Beg to differ

Not all EHS experts agree that lives lost in the workplace are passively accepted by the public. “Perhaps the current moment is just a pause while we digest prior safety improvements and focus on other areas of life that haven’t improved as much, or have gone downhill,” says Dr. Peter Sandman, a preeminent risk communications specialist.

“I frankly don’t believe there’s a national consensus that we’ve reached an acceptable level of safety,” says Daniel Shipp, president of the International Safety Equipment Association. Why? “Because people just don’t think that much about it at all,” says Shipp.

 “The issue of safety and health in the workplace has never been one of ‘America’s National Worries’ even when there was no OSHA,” says EHS consultant James Leemann, Ph.D.

“There is an air of acceptance for those enterprises that are striving to be average,” says Dr. Richard Fulwiler, former director of safety and health worldwide for Procter and Gamble. “But I disagree with the premise when it comes to those enterprises that are striving to be world class or excellent.”

Feeling the pain

There is no “air of acceptance” for families of the 4,690 workers killed on the job in 2010. After the initial shock, many are frustrated and depressed because they cannot get answers from authorities such as OSHA, and they have very few avenues to vent their pain and anger if the employer tries to escape blame.

 “I don’t sleep. I’m running on adrenalin all the time. I’m always drugged out,” says Tammy Duncan, whose 20-year-old son Kerry Edward was electrocuted on a job in West Virginia in 2010. “He was my best friend. The day he died I felt completely lost. They said he was on drugs, and our family would have been destroyed if not for all of us fighting to clear his name.”

The U.S. has bought all the safety and health improvements at work the public thinks necessary in part because most Americans and the New York-Washington media rarely cross paths with the likes of Tammy Duncan in rural West Virginia. Workers most likely to die on the job live on the fringes of modern American society: fishing workers, logging workers, aircraft personnel, farmers and ranchers, miners, roofers and trash collectors.

Personal proximity to risk matters. It is a reason the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on. The death toll does not sear the hearts and minds of most Americans. The total numbers are low. According to (Iraq coalition casualty count) from 2003-2012, 4,486 American deaths occurred in Iraq, slightly less than the number who died in the workplace in one year. From 2001-2012 in Afghanistan, 1,958 Americans have died. Too few Americans have crossed paths with casualties of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The proximity of risk, once so close with the 2001 terror attacks, is now half a world away and seemingly shrinking.

The Vietnam War, in contrast, touched (and tormented) many more families. Of the total 58,269 deaths, 68% occurred between 1967-1969. The high concentration of blood and body bags couldn’t be ignored. It was televised nightly. And the military draft put most teenage boys at risk. The public’s close proximity to risk, and its fear and anger, resulted in mass rallies, sit-ins, protest marches, a near civil war, and a lame-duck president (Johnson).

But large-scale losses do not always translate into national grief and uprisings. Motor-vehicle deaths in the month of February, 2012 totaled 5,280 — more than the number of workers killed in a year. On average, about 45,520 deaths in the United States are related to motor vehicles crashes every year. That’s close to the death toll in Vietnam in a war that spanned more than a decade. But there are no sit-ins, protest rallies and marches to make our highways safer. The public accepts 45,000 highway deaths each year. Why? Proximity of risk is close at hand, every time someone takes the wheel. Most people know someone who has had a crash in the past year (out of 3,158,000 crashes), even if few know of someone who died in a crash.

Public attitudes about risk are shaped in part by the sense of personal control. In their vehicles, people feel in control. Unless confronted by a drunk driver, which is why driving while under the influence is not tolerated and strictly punished. In an airplane, people have no control, which is why the public would never tolerate 45,000 deaths annually from plane crashes. There is a sense of personal control over the workplace — you can either accept a dangerous job or walk away — missing from the environment (one can’t walk away from air pollution).

"The issue of safety and health in the workplace has never been one of ‘America’s National Worries’ even when there was no OSHA"

 “The general public is unconcerned on the entire subject of deaths by accident,” says EHS recruiter Dan Brockman. “Stuff happens. 12 people a day killed in industry, so what? People see the TV program about fishing in boats off Alaska and think nothing of the lives lost every day in that occupation. We kill 40,000 people a year on the highway and no one blinks an eye.”

There are more than three million workplace injuries every year — a stunning, deplorable number that should grab attention. But most are not serious or life threatening. Consider that roughly 11,000 workers suffer amputations every year. Workplace safety and health should be a rallying cry for the more seriously hurt workers and their families. But 94% of all nonfatal amputations involve fingers; 74% of these being amputations of fingertips, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Who hasn’t seen an older carpenter with a missing finger or part of a finger; it’s nothing unusual. It’s not an outrage; it very well can be a badge of honor for the worker.

Worried about the workplace?

The silent national consensus is this: we have reached an acceptable, tolerable level of risk in our workplaces. Yes, too many are still injured and killed, but we don’t live in a perfect world — you will simply never reach zero in seven million workplaces — and you have to make hard choices about national priorities. The media and pols react to public worries, and Gallup shows the public isn’t thinking about worker safety and health.

In a Gallup Poll conducted March 28, 2012, on “American’s National Worries,” here in ranking order is what concerns the public:

  • the economy
  • gas prices
  • Fed spending / budget deficit
  • available and affordable healthcare
  • unemployment
  • social security
  • size and power of Fed government
  • hunger and homeless
  • crime
  • drug use
  • quality of environment – 37% concerned a great deal
  • terrorism
  • illegal immigration.

Worker safety and health doesn’t make the top 15 cut. Might not make the top 30. Here are some further reasons why:

1. 70% of workers are satisfied with the health and safety practices of their employer. Only 9% are dissatisfied. (American Psychological Association/Harris Interactive Poll, March 2011)

2. Workplace injuries and illnesses are at an all-time low. Workplace deaths have dropped from 16 per day to 12 per day. There is 30-year trend of declining fatalities. Deaths dropped just as fast from 1933-2005 (points out reporter John Stossel in his new book). Since OSHA’s creation, workplace deaths are down 65 percent. Job-related injuries are down 67 percent.

3. OSHA issues one regulation every 8 years. “OSHA is broken, period,” says Dr. Fulwiler,

4. Corporations have more invested than ever in glossy sustainability reports and corporate social responsibility success stories.

5. Worker safety and health is largely not considered a sustainability issue. “It should be, and I have included the concept in my seminars,” says Fulwiler. “The concept seems to resonate, but we are just very late to the ‘sustainable party’.”

6. Low-hanging hazardous fruit has been plucked. It is costly to improve safety further. “Most of the monsters have been tamed,” says Henry Lick, former director of Ford Motor Company’s industrial hygiene department.

7.  Only 30% of the workforce is exposed to physical and chemical hazards of greater intensity or duration than prevalent in the non-work environment, according to Dr. Frank Mirer of Hunter College.

Paying the price

What are the consequences to the EHS profession of the public’s acceptance of workplace injuries and fatalities?

Operating in a maintenance mode. “If it’s true that there is not much societal enthusiasm for further improvements in worker safety, it’s also true that sustaining the safety status quo will require attention, pressure and safety professionals,” says Peter Sandman. “Perhaps the time is coming, in many organizations but obviously not all, when safety maintenance will be a more appropriate goal than perpetual safety improvement.”

Shrinking demand for professionals. “In 1986 companies were willing to pay a 30% recruiter’s fee to hire a certified employee to run a program,” says recruiter Dan Brockman. “In 2012 that is not often the case. Companies will now pay 20% to get someone below $75K that can cover the OSHA rules so the client company won’t get fines.”

 “The USA is moving to a service-oriented business model,” says Leemann. “Eventually, we will no longer make stuff. The need for safety and health pros is going to decline precipitously over the coming years.”

Continued use of immigrant workers and secrecy of working conditions in the most dangerous processing plants and with thousands small contractors. According to the AFL-CIO, although the rate of fatal injuries to Latino workers decreased from 4.0 per 100,000 workers in 2009 to 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2010, the fatality rate among Latino workers was 6 percent higher than that for all U.S. workers. Of the foreign-born workers who were fatally injured at work in 2010, 55 percent were Latino.

Continued lack of transparency by companies that refuse to publicly divulge anything about workplace safety except injury and illness rates and success stories, while investing more and more to publicize sustainability and corporate responsibility commitments and achievements.

No vision from the White House. “For decades now the safety profession has been working without a goal,” says consultant Phil LaDuke. “We have preached the gospel of ‘zero injuries’ even though wiser men from other disciplines have told us such goals were counterproductive. We have embraced fad after fad, lie after lie, and goofball methodology after goofball methodology. Hell, we can’t even agree on a standard definition of the word ‘safety.’

 “We have been so remiss in establishing a vision of what exactly constitutes acceptable risk that the public, employers, and government have finally decided for us.”

What can EHS pros do to prevent being marginalized?

 “Wake up,” says LaDuke. “The EHS profession needs to look for ways to support and align with operations strategy and to make a real contribution to the bottom line. Safety professionals can make a far greater impact as part of a continuous improvement and productivity enhancement effort than it ever did telling workers to watch their steps and be careful because their kids love them.”

Consultant Tom Lawrence agrees: “OSHA is moving away from basic hazard protection and is pushing into the value-add realm of operational excellence.

 “Clean and green is the way to go,” says Andrew Cutz, CIH. We need to find financial incentives to do it, though. How about lower health care premiums?”

 “Perhaps safety professionals need to think harder about how to arouse concern, in my terms, ‘outrage’,” says risk communications consultant Dr. Peter Sandman.

 “If safety and health pros want to increase their relevance in the workplace now, they need to focus on what they can do to reduce costs and improve productivity,” says Leemann. “Let the PR folks deal with sustainable growth.”

 “Advice to the wise,” adds Leemann. “Have an updated passport and be willing to move overseas because that is where the safety and health jobs of the future will be.”

 “We need to look in the mirror, step outside the box, and begin to market ourselves just like every other profession does,” says industrial hygienist Aaron Chen. “If you ask people what a doctor, nurse, attorney, police officer, firefighter, chemist, biologist, physicist, teacher, professor, etc, etc. does, most people can easily give you a general idea at least. But poll anyone you meet in a supermarket and ask them if they know what a certified safety professional or certified industrial hygienists does. You get a dull look and response.”

 “Don’t cry in your beer,” says safety manager Jack Daugherty. “Rarely has there been recognition of substantial improvements I’ve made. I take satisfaction just knowing that I am doing a good job. That’s what is important; that we do our job, not that anyone notices.”

Hope for a revival of U.S. manufacturing. Manufacturing employment rose from 16 million in 1961 to 21 million in 1979 and then declined to 16 million in 2003 and 11.648 million in November 2010. Manufacturing’s percentage of total employment is down to about 10 percent.

What’s happening now, according to the Boston Consulting Group, is a “reshoring” back to America of manufacturing that previously migrated offshore, especially to China. The analysts estimate that by 2015, China’s cost advantage will have shrunk to the point that many manufacturers will prefer to open plants in the U.S. In about five years, the BCG economists argue, the cost-risk balance will reach a tipping point in favor of the U.S. in seven key industries where manufacturers had been moving to China: computers and electronics, appliances and electrical equipment; furniture; fabricated metals; plastics and rubber; and transportation goods.

 “With industry beginning to make a positive turnabout in the U.S., this is a prime time for all of us to market the reasons why we can help make an organization more sustainable with less costs,” says Chen.

Speak up. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis: “Make your voices heard. Unless you speak up and educate our politicians at the local state and national level, it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the White House, because our opponents will win. And innocent lives will be lost — lives that could have been saved.”

OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels in his Workers’ Memorial Day address: “Ask every candidate for a commitment to safe jobs. Get every one of them on the record supporting worker protections and our effort for a national injury and illness prevention program.”

Dear Victims of Workplace Fatalities
Rockford Greene safety consultant Phil LaDuke has written a blog on a safety pro’s assertion that any workplace fatality is an unacceptable loss. Visit and click on Random Sampling under the Resources tab at the top of the homepage.

Embrace transformational leadership. “There are huge gains to be made when enterprises embrace the concept of transformation leadership,” says Fulwiler. “Transformation leadership drives functional excellence not just in safety, but in cost, product, quality, business continuity. This is not smoke and mirrors. I have a number of excellent examples.”

 “The days of compliance-driven safety programs is or should be long gone for safety professionals,” says safety manager Mike Kalbaugh. “We need to connect safety improvements with the triple bottom line of people, profit and planet. We should be implementing processes to show how injury prevention impacts the efficient production of high-quality products that drive increases in revenue and meet customer requirements for on-time delivery.

 “It all comes down to the corner office,” says Dan Shipp. “Top management has to establish that hazardous exposures, hazardous work practices and hazardous worker behavior will not be tolerated. An EHS professional may be able to sell the boss’s boss on that concept by running the numbers, and there are plenty of head-snapping models that show the effect of a preventable injury on profits. But ultimately it is the boss’s (or owner’s, or shareholders’) commitment to zero, as well as the boss’s conviction that the EHS pro can get the company there and keep it there, that will produce a lasting reduction in injuries and illness from the job.”


Town Hall: Have We Accomplished All We Can in Protecting Workers?

Moderator: Dave Johnson, Editor, ISHN

American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

1:30 pm – 3:00 pm

Indianapolis Convention Center, Wabash 2