Thought Leadership

Worker fatalities: Is any one paying attention?

January 8, 2010

OSHA’s web site is now designed to bring front and center focus to worker fatalities. Weekly fatality reports name names: the employers who reported (as mandated) job-related deaths to the agency. A brief summary of the incident is included.

Some job safety advocates have been calling for this kind of “transparency” for years. The thinking goes that if greater publicity is given to individual worker fatalities, including naming the employer and their location where the death occurred, companies will be “shamed” into cleaning up their act. No business wants that kind of negative exposure.

But I don’t think it’s working out as planned.

Bringing the cases of job-related fatalities to the surface, so to speak, by making them highly visible on OSHA’s homepage, cannot be argued with. It’s a step in the right direction. Far too long have worker deaths been buried on the back pages of newspapers, in a paragraph or two.

But OSHA’s weekly death summaries are being read “by the choir” so to speak. By safety and health professionals who already are aware of the risks and deadly outcomes that accompany day to day work.

OSHA’s web site of course is not being “visited” by the general public. They have no reason to, obviously. But that’s the “target audience” so to speak that most needs to read the fatality summaries OSHA is now generating.

So to say OSHA is now “making public” fatality specifics I think overstates what is really occurring. This information, I’m willing to bet, never reaches the public.

What’s needed is for newspapers to pick up OSHA’s weekly fatality summaries and print them regularly, every Friday, in the same place, so the reading public get used to seeing this information, and coming to expect it.

It will never happen, but imagine if The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Financial Times had a box in the lower right corner of their front page, where every Friday they printed the weekly workplace death toll.

Would it spark public outrage? No, because to be blunt, too many of the deaths are falls from stepladders, vehicle crashes, pedestrians hit by vehicles, heart attacks, stories that in the eyes of newspaper editors and readers are sad, tragic for sure, but ordinary. “Ordinary” is insulting to the families, friends and coworkers of the victims, to them the incident is any but “ordinary”, it is extra-ordinary, it is life-changing.

But I have just described the biggest barrier to generating the public protests and pressure for safety improvements that fatality “transparency” is intended to create. Beyond the victims’ circles of family and friends, these deaths are perceived by the public as “accidents will happen.”

This wasn’t always the case. About a hundred years ago, a muckraker created a national stir by publishing a calendar, where each month was accompanied by photos of workers maimed on the job, with amputated arms and legs and disfigured faces. The families of these victims were also photographed, to drive home the impact of these events. In the early 1900s, this calendar was a shocking revelation to the public. It also struck a chord because more of the U.S. public was blue-collar, working class people in the early 1900s. Today, the public is mostly employed in white-collar, service jobs and far removed from get-your-hands-dirty labor. So the empathy is not there.

And that’s why OSHA's well-intentioned and worthwhile attempt to drum up interest and public pressure over job fatalities is falling short of its objective.
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