Dying at Work, part one

April 29th, 2004 by

Is the American workplace more dangerous today than in the recent past?

According to a report released by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, workplace deaths in Massachusetts rose by 65% in 2003 to a total of 81 people. Naturally, the report focuses on systemic reductions in safety enforcement at both the federal and state levels. No argument there. But at LynchRyan, we begin with the premise that the ultimate control of a company’s destiny lies within. More than any other single factor, we believe that the management philosophy, the commitment to the work and the workforce, determines whether there will be serious injuries or even death. Enforcement all too often comes only after serious injuries have occurred.

So here are some questions relating to the relationship between the increase in fatalities and what’s going on inside company management:

1. In the continuing tough economic climate, many jobs have been lost. Despite reducing jobs, many employers have not reduced the workload. As a result, fewer workers are being asked to do more work. They are under more pressure from hour to hour. They may be working longer hours. In addition, workers who remain in jobs while co-workers are let go often suffer from significant emotional stress. Is this increased stress on workers a significant factor in the increase in fatal injuries?

2. When employers reduce spending, training is often one of the first things to go. Are workers being asked to perform dangerous tasks without the proper training and safety equipment? Are employers relying on low-skilled labor to handle complex jobs? Are employers in such a hurry to “get the work done” that they fail to pay attention to unsafe conditions and unsafe workplace practices?

3. With cuts in federal and state enforcement efforts, employers may feel that the likelihood of being inspected — and cited — for violations has become increasingly remote. Like drivers on an unpatrolled highway, who may drive well beyond the speed limit, are employers taking chances on safety because they don’t think anyone is paying attention?

4. Jobs are hard to come by in this economy. Are workers putting up with unsafe conditions out of fear of losing their jobs? Is the tough economy an opportunity for managers to exploit workers?

There are no simple answers to these questions. But good management understands the importance of keeping workers safe, healthy, and productive. It never makes good business sense — or ethical sense, for that matter — to scrimp on safety just because no one may be watching. Any company’s most valuable asset is a skilled workforce. The realities of a tough economy may require reductions in the workforce. But prudent employers will remain sensitive to the strains and stresses of these reductions and take steps to support remaining workers, helping them to perform their jobs safely. From the perspective of good business practices, nothing else makes sense.

In part two, we will analyze the AFL-CIO data in detail.