Aurora Packing Company is averaging 70 percent fewer injuries than it did a decade ago, and Mike Fagel, safety director at the North Aurora, Ill., facility says he and his 180 employees are "kicking butt with this safety program, and I'd like to think other companies that want to contain costs are doing the same thing."

That seems to be happening, according to the latest injury and illness figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Along with all the other good news coming out of Washington these days--low unemployment and inflation, continued strong economic growth--BLS reported in December that the number of injury and illness cases per 100 full-time workers in 1996 was the lowest on record. Based on logs kept by about 165,000 U.S. employers, the bureau estimated a total incidence rate of 7.4, down from 8.1 in 1995.

Total incidence rates for recordable injuries and illnesses have now declined for four straight years. And there's more good news:

  • The rate of cases involving days away from work dropped for the sixth consecutive year to 2.2 per 100 full-time workers, also a record low.

  • Repetitive motion cases declined nine percent in 1996, after falling six percent in 1995.

These findings are in line with surveys conducted by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News in the past two years. In 1996 and 1997, more than half of the readers surveyed said their injury and illness rates had improved in the past year. In 1997, only seven percent said rates had gotten worse.

What's interesting is that this four-year decline in industry's incidence rate has come in the middle of an economic expansion. It's the first time the rate has trended downward during economic growth. Historically, injuries have increased when business booms, supposedly because employers are hiring new workers who lack safety training. Injuries have decreased during recessions, as newer workers who pose greater safety risks are the first to be laid off, according to conventional safety wisdom.

During the expansion of 1975-1980, for example, the total incidence rate climbed from 9.1 to 9.5. During the following recession, the rate fell to 7.7. It climbed back up to 8.8 during the growth years of 1983-1990, and then fell to 8.4 during the short recession of 1990-1991.

A new pattern

History has been turned on its head in the 1990s, and no one is quite sure why. Neither the Bureau of Labor Statistics nor OSHA has the time or money for more in-depth research. "It's all speculation," says OSHA chief Charles Jeffress.

Taking his stab at an answer, Jeffress says injuries started declining the '90s around the time healthcare costs, including workers' compensation, became a significant corporate concern. As a result, "safety and health has had a higher visibility in the '90s," he says.

ISHN asked more than two dozen people associated with the safety and health field to explain industry's record-setting safety performance in 1996. Most cite a mix of social, economic, psychological, and regulatory influences. Some see dark forces at work--under-reporting and cover-ups. Others see a whole new way of practicing safety and health in the workplace.

Nothing special

To be sure, some don't want to draw any conclusions. "I don't see a trend," says Thomas Smith, a Michigan safety consultant. Drawing on statistical process control principles, he argues that seven consecutive data points in one direction up or down are needed to confirm that something unusual is occurring. Don't over-react, says Smith. "Safety performance in the U.S. is stagnant."

BLS numbers are only one measure of safety performance, and a bad one at that, asserts a safety manager in Nebraska. He calls them "failure rates" that document--belatedly--what went wrong, while offering no insight into why the accidents happened. Thinking along those same lines, a growing number of safety practitioners are tracking activities that get at the causes of accidents, such as organizational audits, behavioral observations, perception surveys, and number of employees trained.

Behind the numbers

Still, the declining national injury and illness rate draws attention to developments that seem certain to affect safety performance--it's just that no one knows to what extent. These same issues and trends are also shaping the course of safety careers, and the direction of the safety and health profession. Among them:

  • Shifts in the economy. The number of production workers in the U.S. has dropped from 13.5 million in 1972 to 11.9 million in 1994, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Shifts to a service economy, more automated assembly, and more overseas manufacturing make U.S. workplaces on the whole less dangerous. Plus, some safety experts believe greater use of temporary workers drives down injury rates. (BLS estimates 12 million people work as temps, part-timers, and contract and leased employees--ten percent of the labor force.)

    "Temporary workers are less likely to report injuries that are not obvious," says one safety consultant. "They want to continue working."

  • Fall-out from downsizing. Layoffs and downsizing dropped to their lowest levels of the 1990s last year, according to the American Management Association. But several safety experts say the scars remain. Employee morale is a major safety concern, according to ISHN surveys.

    "Job insecurity is a huge issue," says Joseph Kinney of the National Safety Workplace Institute. Kinney and others believe workers unsure of their value to an organization are less likely to report minor injuries, thus suppressing the national average.

    "You don't want to be targeted as someone who is late, absent, or injured," says Nancy Lessin of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

  • Pressure to control costs. Workers' compensation costs climbed at an average annual rate of nearly 15 percent from 1985 to 1992, according to the Social Security Administration. This got management's attention, as OSHA chief Jeffress noted. Safety in many plants became a cost-containment, or "profit protection" priority, according to consultant David Sarkus.

    Efforts paid off. From 1992 to 1995, medical expenditures for comp cases fell an average of three percent annually. In 1996, 16 of 20 states had fewer compensated or reported claims compared to 1995, according to a listing compiled by the National Safety Council.

    The clampdown on comp costs is reflected in one BLS indicator: The rise in recent years of injury and illness cases resulting in restricted work activities such as temporary light duty or shortened hours. More employers are getting aggressive about finding work for injured employees during their recovery.

    Some say the crackdown has been heavy-handed. This is how it can work, according to a former insurance consultant: "You let employees know in no uncertain terms that every claim will be challenged. We would use a signed letter from the president, which alone would reduce back claims by 40 percent." Employees put up with more pain as a result, he says, because "you never know if you'll be in the next round of layoffs."

    Others worry that incentive programs that reward low injury rates might be stifling reporting. "There's absolutely pressure if you make an issue" out of reaching goals like zero injuries for the year, says Charlie Hart, safety manager for an Exxon plant in Texas. "There's no sign out in front here saying we have four days to go to reach our safety goal. We don't want to put that kind of pressure on people."

  • Emphasis on quality. "Years ago I'd go to our facilities and they were dirty and grungy," says industrial hygienist Dan Markiewicz. "Now the floors shine, there's better lighting; we're getting rid of the junk to make the customer feel better." He sees businesses large and small pushing quality, and he says better safety is a natural by-product.

  • Smarter managers. Competitive pressures are driving more CEOs to set high goals for quality, productivity, and other so-called "core values." A number of safety pros say more managers now understand how safety supports those goals, and why safety should be integrated into planning.

    "Safety, environmental, and quality are all part of the way we do business, they are built-in up front when we design new products or processes," says a safety manager in Florida.

  • Improved equipment. "Capital dollars today buy more built-in protection," says consultant Carl Metzgar. In the late 1960s when Metzgar started auditing plants, he says he saw "so many damn chain drives that were badly guarded." Today, even older facilities have been retrofitted with gear drive reducers that work better, require less maintenance, and are safer, he says.

  • More demanding workers. "We have a significant number of workers who were trained in grade school to buckle up," says Metzgar. He contends this kind of safety awareness has transferred to the workplace.

    "My dad wanted a job so bad that he'd leap on a fire if he was told to," says George Shirley, a longtime processing industry safety manager now in consulting. "Kids today will stop and ask, 'What's my motivation here?'"

  • OSHA's emphasis on "the numbers." Late last year OSHA sent letters to more than 12,000 employers with lost workday injury and illness rates of 7.0 and above telling them that they were inspection targets as part of the agency's new national Cooperative Compliance Program. Employers who voluntarily work with OSHA to reduce hazards face reduced odds of an inspection. Experts say this is making smart use of injury data, as along as the data is accurate.

    "OSHA's emphasis on the numbers does create an incentive to under-report," says a former agency official. When employers learn that rates are being used for targeting, some say, "We better make them look good," according to an industry safety and health attorney.

    Publicly, OSHA officials say they are confident that injury reporting data is accurate. Jeffress says a preliminary assessment of 250 on-site record checks by inspectors to verify data being used for the Cooperative Compliance Program has turned up as many instances of over-reporting as under-reporting, about 10 percent in each case.

    Privately, the agency is fully aware of the potential for under-reporting, and is trying to figure out the best way to ensure quality given very limited resources, according to sources.

  • OSHA eases up. "People aren't keeping good logs because OSHA isn't looking," says an industry lawyer. According to several sources, this is because OSHA field offices misinterpreted former agency chief Joe Dear's directive several years ago to ease up on nit-picking paperwork violations. "He meant posters and some hazard communication requirements, but there's been very little enforcement of recordkeeping in recent years," says one former agency official.

    OSHA spokesman Stephen Gaskill disagrees, pointing to more than $600,000 in penalties slapped on Landis Plastics, Inc., a New York manufacturer, in January, 1997, for allegedly failing to log 63 employee injuries and illnesses. "This agency has not let up on recordkeeping at all," Gaskill says.

    More broadly, there are concerns that OSHA's troubles following the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 have led to lax attitudes about keeping injury logs. The record low injury and illness rate in 1996 followed a tumultuous 1995 for OSHA. The GOP proposed a series of OSHA reform bills plus grave cuts to the agency's budget. President Clinton, meanwhile, promised a "new", more cooperative OSHA. Willful penalties were cut for small businesses. Hopes for an ergonomics standard crashed and burned. Parts of the federal government were twice shut down. And federal OSHA inspections reached an all-time low of 29,113.

    "Clearly there is the perception that OSHA is not out there anymore," says a labor safety and health leader.

Evolving tactics

That might not be all bad, at least according to some safety professionals. In the early 1990s a group of safety pros in the midwest began privately discussing what OSHA really meant to their work, according to one of the participants.

"We were spinning our wheels, just reworking old compliance programs, and then OSHA wouldn't show up," he says.

"To say compliance isn't time-consuming is BS," he says. Identifying energy sources and designing placards for 4,000 pieces of equipment to comply with the lockout-tagout standard took him 18 months. "And I don't know if I ever brought all our confined spaces into compliance."

But in the 1990s, the lack of major, new standards has given him time to go after real safety problems, he says. "I've got to be careful what I say, because I owe my job to OSHA," he chuckles.

Since many of those problems relate to people, this pro started using behavioral techniques--training supervisors and employees to first recognize the types of unsafe acts that contribute to injuries, and then how to approach co-workers about changing risky practices.

"Frankly, we laughed at this behavioral stuff in the beginning," he says, recalling how he thought it was "all shaking hands and slapping smiley faces on people." Now his program is a blend of hard rules and soft people approaches. If he didn't track the number of safe and unsafe work practices observed by employees, he says, "I'd have nothing to drive my program, because my injury rates are already so low."

The growing popularity of behavior-based safety in the 1990s coincides with OSHA's retrenchment and another important trend--business' desire to cut out supervisory levels and push responsibilities down to the shop floor. In the process, many safety pros have changed their management style.

"I don't come in with the tablets and the ten commandments anymore," says Mike Fagel. "I say, ŒLet's talk about it and come up with a plan.' Ten or 15 years ago this used to be Mike's safety program. Not anymore. I'm kind of like a coach."

Many pros say their programs are better because workers are more involved in training, auditing, and problem-solving. "Ten years ago I'd go out and say, ŒBy God, you've got to put a guard on that machine'," says safety manager Gary Higbee. "Then I'd go back to the office and they'd jerry-rig something. Now there's a team coming up with a solution that really works."

Styles have also changed with a new generation of safety and health pros coming into its own. Says George Shirley: "Thirty years ago you had a lot of good old boys doing safety because management told them to do it. Some would just stay in their office and collect a paycheck. Now you have people who see safety as a profession. They have degrees in safety, and they have a lively interest in it."

It's impossible to quantify how changes in safety practices have affected the national injury rate, but intuitively many safety experts believe it's all making a difference. Still, as one says, "I don't think we should give up our jobs yet."

Referring to the manufacturing industry's 1996 total incidence rate of 10.6 injury and illness cases per 100 employees, Dan Markiewicz says, "If one out of every ten employees will have an injury or illness every year, that's way too high, way too high."