Occupational Fatalities in 2018 Up 2 Percent: Workplace Overdoses, Suicides on the Rise

The most recent Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Report, released by The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS), shows the rate of fatal work injuries increased by 2 percent in 2018 – the fourth such increase in five years – and two statistics stand out.

Tragically, unintentional overdoses at work increased by 12 percent in 2018 — the sixth consecutive annual increase and a reflection of the broader opioid crisis that the United States is facing. OSHA has teamed with the National Safety Council (NSC) on the release of a toolkit to help employers address opioid abuse in their workplaces and support workers in recovery.

Unintentional overdoses from nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol increased for the sixth consecutive year, claiming 305 lives in 2018 compared with 272 the previous year, the NSC noted. Meanwhile, work-related motor vehicle deaths declined, totaling 1,276 in 2018 from 1,299 in 2017. In addition, falls to a lower level decreased to 615 deaths in 2018 from 713 the year prior.

Motor vehicle crashes and falls remain the leading causes of preventable death on the job, with drug and alcohol overdoses growing as a workplace threat. Drug overdoses are the No. 1 cause of preventable death outside of the workplace.

“The data shows we are still not doing enough to protect our workers,” the NSC said in a statement. “Workplace fatalities should never be considered a cost of doing business. Employers need to take a systematic approach to safety that includes having policies, training and risk assessment techniques in place to address major causes of fatalities and injuries. Leadership needs to set the tone from the top and engage all workers in safety, identify hazards and measure safety performance using leading indicators to continuously improve.”

Suicide at work, which increased by 11 percent in 2018, also is a tragic public health problem that can have lasting harmful effects on families, workplaces and communities. OSHA created a new webpage with free and confidential resources to help identify the warning signs of suicide and to help users know who and how to call for help.

The news wasn’t all bad: The report also showed a 14 percent decline in work-related fatal falls from heights, the lowest total since 2013. Enforcement efforts helped abate more than 7,000 fall-related hazards in the construction industry.

“OSHA will continue to use BLS data for enforcement targeting within its jurisdiction to help prevent tragedies,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. “Inspections for OSHA were up, and we will work with state plans so employers and workers can find compliance assistance tools in many forms or call the agency to report unsafe working conditions. Any fatality is one too many.”

ASSP Urges Employers to Adopt Voluntary Consensus Standards

The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) indicated concern that the fatality rate has shown increases in four out of the past five years. The organization is urging employers to be more active in adopting voluntary national consensus standards and implementing safety and health management systems in response to the 5,250 fatal work injuries reported by BLS that occurred in 2018, a 2 percent increase from the previous year’s total of 5,147.

“With the innovative tools available to today’s employers nationwide, it’s concerning that we’re continuing to see higher numbers of worker fatalities,” said ASSP President Diana Stegall, CSP, CFPS, ARM, SMS, CPCU. “Most occupational incidents are preventable given today’s technologies and proven safety and health strategies.”

Voluntary consensus standards promote best practices and prevent worker injuries, illnesses and fatalities – especially valuable during this time of low activity in regulatory development at the federal level. ASSP is the secretariat for many standards committees in the United States and worldwide, forming expert groups and ensuring standards are developed and revised in accordance with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

While regulatory entities like OSHA set workplace safety standards mandated by law, voluntary consensus standards are those guidelines that safety-minded organizations choose to implement because of their merit. Consensus standards reflect diverse viewpoints and represent state-of-the-art practices and technologies while addressing gaps where no regulatory standard exists in today’s rapidly changing environment. “Voluntary national consensus standards can transform safety programs from compliance-based cost centers to corporate sustainability initiatives that save lives and positively impact the organization’s bottom line,” Stegall said.

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About Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the Global EHSQ Content Lead for Intelex Technologies. Formerly the Content Director for EHS Today, she has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. Her work as a journalist and editor has been recognized with national and international awards. She has been interviewed about occupational safety and health for national business publications, documentaries and television programs; has served as a panelist on roundtables; and has provided the keynote address for occupational safety and health conferences.

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