Facing the Unthinkable: Fatality Prevention in the Workplace: How Workplace Culture, Organizational Systems and Leadership Affect the Risk of Fatalities, and What Safety Professionals Can Do to Prevent Deaths

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No employer, family member or coworker ever wants a fatality to occur in the workplace. But it happens. In 2006 alone, 5,703 people died on the job, representing a multitude of poor choices and system failures that might have been avoided with better information or preparation.

Preventing workplace fatalities is the indisputable goal of any safety management system, but too often, the system breaks down. Employers fail in their leadership roles, well-meaning safety managers approach fatality prevention from the wrong direction or employees develop feelings of invincibility and the unthinkable occurs: someone dies on the job.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and the Alcoa Foundation hosted an event last November to establish a dialogue about occupational deaths. The two-day Fatality Prevention in the Workplace Forum, which attracted more than 150 safety professionals and industry leaders, was the starting point for a discussion of the causes of fatalities, the best ways to prevent them and suggestions for future areas of research.

OCCUPATIONAL Hazards spoke to some key presenters from the forum to determine exactly what companies, safety professionals and employees should be doing to prevent the unthinkable.

Frequent vs. Fatal

Fred A. Manuele, president of Hazards Limited, presented his research on workplace fatalities and serious injuries at the IUP forum. One of the biggest myths he set out to discredit is that reducing frequently occurring injuries also will prevent serious or fatal incidents.

Manuele says this approach "has been proven untrue" and stresses that fatal incidents often occur during non-routine tasks, the type safety professionals may have the least experience dealing with. And even if a company has a stellar safety history when it comes to serious incidents, it can be risky to take comfort in rates.


"You should not be deluding yourselves that you don't have serious injury potential just because your rates are down," Manuele warns.

Lon Ferguson, chair of the IUP safety sciences department and a key organizer of the fatality forum, agrees that injury rates can be misleading or can create false reassurance. He particularly questions the fact that total recordable rates seem to be decreasing across the board, but fatality rates aren't following suit at the same pace.

"Why isn't there more of a relationship?" Ferguson asks. "The fact is that it's very difficult to hide fatality data, but you can play games with rates."

While Ferguson isn't suggesting that dishonest rate reporting is a widespread problem, he acknowledges the possibility. "Someone has to at least think about that as a possible option," he says. After all, Ferguson explains, companies are under pressure to get their injury rates down--and keep them down.

Jeff Shockey, corporate safety director for Alcoa, points out the risks associated with relying too heavily on a successful safety past. "It's easy to sit back and feel good about total recordable rates, or OSHA compliance, or having passed the last ISO audit, and be lulled into a sense of overconfidence," he says. "But fatalities are a different animal. They don't care if you have the lowest total recordable rate."

To prevent fatalities, Manuele thinks safety professionals must be willing to change the way they look at incident prevention. "They have to change the philosophy that says what we have in place is adequate," he says. He also debunks the myth that worker causes are the principle contributors to fatal incidents. In reality, he believes "the system is the problem, not the worker."

What exactly is wrong with the system? According to these experts, economic and investment pressures, turnover, leadership, global competition and downsizing play big roles in the likelihood of workplace fatalities. …


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