Mixed News in Latest BLS Injury and Illness Reports

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released reports on the numbers of fatal and nonfatal workplace injuries during calendar year 2017. The reports contain mixed news about occupational safety performance in the United States.

What safety trends do the reports reveal, and what can we learn from them? Let’s take a closer look.

Nonfatal Injuries

BLS reports that there were approximately 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers in 2017, for a rate of total recordable cases (TRC) of 2.8 cases per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers. This translates to nearly 45,800 fewer nonfatal injuries in 2017 compared to 2016. The TRC rate dropped by 0.1 from 2016, which is consistent with an overall decline in the rate since 2004.

So far, that looks pretty good. But’s let’s dig a little deeper into the numbers.

The rates of more serious nonfatal injuries, such as days away from work (DAFW) and days of job transfer or restriction only (DJTR), remain unchanged from 2016. The median days away from work, a key measure of severity of cases, remained at 8, the same as it was in 2016. Additionally, the rate for DJTR has been stuck at 0.7 cases per 100 FTE workers since 2011.

To sum up, the overall number of nonfatal recordable injuries declined and the injury rate dropped by a tenth of a point, but rates of serious nonfatal injuries haven’t changed.

Fatal Injuries

At first glance, the news about fatal injury numbers looks good. There were 5,147 fatal work injuries in 2017, which is down slightly from the total of 5,190 fatal injuries recorded in 2016. This also corresponds to a reduction in the rate of fatalities, from 3.6 per 100,000 FTE workers in 2016 to 3.5 in 2017.

However, if we take a closer look at the data in the chart above we’ll see that we shouldn’t be celebrating just yet.

First, the total number of fatalities in 2017 is still higher than the totals for every other year since 2008, with the exception of 2016. Fatalities had dropped sharply from 5,214 in 2008 to 4,551 in 2009, but by 2016 had risen back up to 5,190. Even after the slight decline in 2017, the total number of fatalities is still significantly higher than it was in 2009.

There are also some worrisome trends for certain types of incidents. For example:

  1. Fatal falls were at their highest level in the 26-year history of the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), accounting for 887 (17%) worker deaths.
  2. Unintentional overdoses due to nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol while at work increased by 25% from 217 in 2016 to 272 in 2017. This was the fifth consecutive year in which such fatalities increased by at least 25%.
  3. Fatal occupational injuries involving confined spaces rose 15% to 166 in 2017 from 144 in 2016.
  4. Heavy equipment and tractor-trailer truck drivers suffered 840 fatal injuries, the highest total since the CFOI began tracking that occupational series in 2003.
  5. 15% of all fatally injured workers in 2017 were age 65 or over. For comparison, the figure was 8% in 1992.
  6. Workplace fatalities in the private mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industry increased 26% to 112 in 2017 from a series low of 89 in 2016.

So, both the number and rate of fatal injuries were slightly down relative to 2016 totals, but were still significantly higher than they’d been for most of the last decade, and individual occupational categories and incident types showed troubling increases.

What Does It All Mean?

In an earlier post, we talked about the way safety anomalies are often hidden in plain sight. We discussed the way general trends can obscure a deeper story, especially when we perceive the trends to be positive. Discussing BLS injury data available at the time of the blog post, we pointed out that many wanted to celebrate the overall trend of decreasing nonfatal injuries, while failing to realize the number of fatal injuries had actually been on the rise in recent years.

We see a similar picture with the latest BLS reports. While the number of fatalities dropped slightly compared to 2016 totals, they’re still higher than most years during the last decade, with certain types of injuries and certain industry sectors registering record high numbers. Additionally, while the number and rate of nonfatal injuries dropped between 2016 and 2017, rates of serious injuries such as DAFW and DJTR remained constant.

Once again, I’d argue that despite the seemingly positive trends, the deeper story here is that we’re still not doing a great job identifying and managing risks. If we were, we would be seeing better results when it comes to reducing the most serious kinds of injuries. Instead, the number of fatalities in 2017 is one of the highest in the past decade, we’re seeing no progress in reducing DAFW and DJTR rates, certain types of injuries such as fatal falls have soared to all-time highs, and injuries among specific groups of employees such as heavy equipment and tractor trailer drivers are rising sharply.

The numbers suggest that there is considerable room for improvement to workplace health and safety. That means going out looking for risks, even in the absence of reported incidents. It means performing thorough root cause analysis for all identified risks, and engaging all of our employees in our EHS culture to help with prevention efforts. We’re more likely to succeed in managing risks if we involve employees throughout every step of the process while demonstrating that we’ve paid attention to issues they’ve brought to our attention, and keeping them informed of progress on corrective actions being taken.

With the beginning of the New Year, now is the perfect time to re-evaluate and refine our risk analysis procedures, and implement measures to further strengthen our workplace EHS culture. If we commit ourselves to a more proactive approach toward the safety of our workplaces, perhaps we’ll see better news from BLS in the future – and happier and safer workers.

Let VelocityEHS Help!

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From all of us here at VelocityEHS, we wish you a safe and successful New Year.