As many Americans continue to worry that the Supreme Court ruling on unions could change workplace safety laws for the worse, there remains a more general threat to workplace safety which U.S. businesses should be focused on.

Despite a gradual decrease over the past 13 years, the workplace fatality rate per 100,000 people in the U.S. is still significantly higher than in most E.U. countries. At 3.6 fatalities per 100,000 people for the year 2016, the U.S. workplace is nine times more deadly than the British workplace - with a workplace fatality rate of 0.4 for the 2016-2017 period.

According to this 2017 report from the British Health and Safety Executive (HSE), numerous E.U. countries outperform the U.S. with regard to workplace fatalities. Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, and Portugal all have a much lower GDP per capita than the U.S. but are - nevertheless - much less deadly. At 3.6, the workplace fatality rate in the U.S. is actually much closer to less economically developed European countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

A historical and global picture

In 1999, the World Health Organisation wrote a report which tried to estimate the workplace fatality rate per 100,000 people globally. In the report, the U.S. had a workplace fatality rate of 5.3, so it’s fair to say that the current rate of 3.6 is a positive step.

However, the report makes for sober reading when you consider that this 5.3 figure also includes traffic accidents, whereas the 3.6 figure does not. It’s also sobering when - once again - you begin to compare the U.S.’s rate change to other countries.

For example, according to the same data, the U.K.’s workplace and traffic fatality rate in 1999 was 1.4. As previously mentioned, current workplace fatality rate in the U.K. is 0.4. Even accounting for how traffic accidents have skewed the 1999 data, the decline in fatality rate in the U.K. is still significantly faster than in the U.S. and has led to workplaces which are nine times safer than American ones.

Yet, it’s not just the U.K. According to the same two sets of data - the 1999 WHO report and the 2017 HSE report - the Netherlands has gone from a rate of 3.1 to 0.9, Sweden has gone from 6.2 to 0.6, and Spain has gone from 10.2 to 1.5. The success story from some of the ex-Communist countries in the east of the European Union is even more incredible. Hungary has gone from 11.4 to 1.8 and Estonia has gone from 11.6 to 0.75.

The truth resists simplicity

Of course, while it’s easy to mock the U.S. for its apparent lack of progress, figuring out how to solve its current quandary is much harder. After all, there’s no single reason why the E.U. has safer workplaces than the US.

One pro-government explanation might be that the E.U. is safer because it has more safety regulation resulting from more government oversight. However, a pro-business rebuttal to this would be the massively positive change in workplace safety in the European countries which ditched communism in favor of capitalism.

Another pro-government argument would be that government spending on health and safety in the U.K. directly correlated with a decrease in workplace fatality rates. What’s more, a reduction in funding has directly correlated with a plateauing of workplace fatality rates.

From 1997 to 2009 - under the Labour government - workplace fatality rates were decreasing. Since 2009, they have remained the same, as the Conservative government continues to cut HSE spending by nearly half of what it was under the previous government.

However, as compelling as this argument is, correlation is not causation. It could be that the reason fatality rates in the U.K. haven’t changed since 2009 is that there haven’t been any significant technological breakthroughs for safety equipment. It could also be an issue linked to the recession, or there could be a myriad of other factors.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., changes in government have had little to no impact on workplace fatality rates. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have been and gone with little change to the number or the rate of workplace fatalities. In 2003, 5,575 Americans died at work. In 2016, 5,190 Americans died at work. That’s a decrease, but it’s not a reason to break out the champagne just yet.

What’s more, OSHA spending in the U.S. is not as much of a political battleground as you might expect. In 2001, with a Republican President and Republican Congress, the OSHA budget increased by $44 million.

The fact that it is so difficult to explain the U.S.’ relatively high workplace fatality rate shows how complex the question of workplace safety is in the U.S. So, while it’s easy to imagine that the Supreme Court ruling will make American workplaces less safe, it’s also hard to imagine what will make American workplaces safer.

Still, if you zoom out further, you do see hope for the U.S. While recent data suggests stagnation, historical data from OSHA shows progress. In 1970, 38 Americans died at work every day. In 2016, this same figure is just 16 a day. That’s a 58% decrease. Once again, though, this is overshadowed by the U.K. where - since 1974 - workplace fatalities have decreased by 85%.

While those figures are quite different, there is a commonality between both of them. 1971 is the year that OSHA (the U.S. federal government body responsible for workplace health and safety) was founded. 1974 is the year that HSE (the U.K. government body responsible for workplace health and safety) was founded. The work of both organizations has produced different results, yet they have produced results nevertheless.

Looking at the current data, you could say that the U.S. has a lot to learn from the U.K. when it comes to workplace safety. However, OSHA was founded in the U.S. three years before HSE was founded in the U.K. So looking at history, you could also say that the U.K. has learned a lot from the U.S. when it comes to workplace safety.


Storage Equipment Experts (SEE) is a safety inspection and training business, owned and founded by Justin O’Sullivan. SEE specialises specifically in pallet racking safety inspections and pallet racking safety inspection training. From its base outside of London, SEE operates all over the U.K. and Ireland.