How safe is the workplace these days? We don’t really know, since given the nature of the federal government’s data-crunching capabilities, it’ll take another year for us to get the statistics on workplace incidents in 2022. But we do finally know how safe the workplace was at U.S.-based employers in 2021, but there’s not much good news in the numbers:
- Nonfatal injuries and illnesses were down in 2021 by 1.8% over 2020.
- Fatal work injuries were up by 8.9% year-over-year.
- The impact of COVID-19 on the workplace in 2020-2021 was significant but exactly how significant is not yet known.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 5,190 people died on the job in 2021, compared to 4,764 in 2020. Also, while total workplace injuries and illnesses dropped somewhat year-over-year, the number of injuries actually increased by 6.3% (2.2 million injury cases in 2021 vs. 2.1 million in 2020). Offsetting the increase in injuries is that illnesses—in particular, respiratory illnesses—dropped by 32.9%.
Of course, the most obvious reason for all of this is COVID-19. In 2020, people stopped going into the office or the factory or schools or stores or anywhere else for many months, but in 2021 “work from home” protocols shifted to “return to work,” which meant there were more people back at the factories, facilities and offices where they could potentially be injured. And by 2021, vaccinations, masks and social distancing had greatly reduced COVID’s impact, resulting in far fewer infections and respiratory illnesses on the job.
As COVID became less of a workplace issue, the old familiar hazards unfortunately came back to bedevil workers. Truck and delivery drivers had the most fatal accidents in 2021, as fatalities increased by 16.3% over 2020. In fact, transportation incidents were the most frequent type of fatal event, according to the BLS, accounting for nearly four out of 10 (38.2%) work-related deaths, or 1,982. Construction and extraction occupations were the second-most deadly occupation in terms of numbers of fatalities. Falls, slips and trips accounted for 850 workplace deaths.
However, the BLS also measures something it calls the fatal occupational injury rate, which is the number of fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. On that basis, the most dangerous occupation in the U.S. actually isn’t truck drivers (which had a rate of 28.8), but rather logging workers (with a rate of 82.2). Fishing and hunting workers were the second-most dangerous occupation, based on a fatality rate of 75.2.
In any event, the nearly 9% increase in workplace fatalities “serves as a call to action for OSHA, employers and other stakeholders to redouble our collective efforts to make our nation’s workplaces safer,” said Doug Parker, the U.S. Labor Department’s assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. Parker in particular pointed to a disproportionately higher number of fatalities among Black and Latino workers as “deeply troubling facts.” While the overall fatal occupational injury rate of 3.6 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers is the highest since 2016, the rate for Latino workers is 4.5 and for Black workers it’s 12.6—an all-time high.
“It’s so important to understand how societal issues such as racism and systemic inequities can undermine workplace safety and disenfranchise workers,” noted Christine Sullivan, president of the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). “Organizational improvement occurs when diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded components of a business strategy.”
“The [BLS] data indicate workplaces have become less safe, and it is heartbreaking,” added Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council (NSC). Both Martin and Sullivan noted that with the availability of new safety technologies and various health-focused initiatives, employers have numerous ways to keep their workers out of harm’s way. But the evidence doesn’t indicate things are getting any better; if anything, they seem to be getting worse. And the real question is: why? We’ll be devoting the next year’s worth of articles and commentaries on trying to answer that question.
One last note: In 2020, according to the BLS, a worker died every 111 minutes from a work-related injury. In 2021, the frequency increased by an alarming 10 minutes, with a worker dying every 101 minutes from an occupational injury. The clock is most assuredly ticking on making the workplace safer, and time is not on our side.