Rousmaniere: The Upcoming Work Safety Agenda

07.12.2017


By Peter Rousmaniere

About 900,000 work injuries involving at least one day of lost time will occur this year.  How might that be lowered within a five year planning horizon to, say 810,000, which would be consistent with long term trends? It will likely require more adept use of technology and smarter targeting of opportunities.

To set a high bar, consider how worksite safety has lagged commercial flight safety. Since the 1960s, if American work had advanced in safety as much as flying has in crash avoidance, there would have been 1,380 work fatalities in 2015 instead of the actual count of 4,836.

The chance of a commercial airline disaster nears the vanishing point. The risk of a fatal accident on a flight, already very low in the 1960s, has since dropped by 80%.  A friend in the airline industry explained it this way: “Aircraft and systems are better designed and built, but the key to advanced safety has been the constant attention to operating procedures, how to learn from past accidents, and how to anticipate future accidents by tracking data from day-to-day operations. This is painstaking work at the margins but produces important yields.”

Airline safety might be an aspiration for someone setting her or his goals for work safety for, say, the next five years.  Let’s look at the broad context, then at forces that will drive improvements from now to well past 2020.

The general workforce factors are pretty well set today.  The entire workforce is expected to grow at about 1% per year for five years. Immigrants will account for more than three quarters of workforce growth.  Official unemployment is very low at this point.  

Higher-than-average-risk jobs with many occupants are expected to grow in the next five to ten years include driver/sales workers and truck drivers, material movers, janitor and building cleaners, construction laborers, and nursing aides. 

Immigration restrictions that apply to low-skilled immigrants (half of whom are unauthorized) may constrain labor supply and prompt mechanization.  But low-skilled unauthorized labor supply from Latin America has largely dried up already before the current administration. Any trillion-dollar-like infrastructure initiative by Washington, and a return to residential construction, are the most likely ways in which high-risk jobs may be created above current forecasts.

Tight employment markets should reinforce the not well-documented yet immersive relationship between gains in productivity, or doing more with less workers, and reductions in work injuries. The saying “inside every work injury a productivity improvement is struggling to get out” will continue to explain how many decisions with safety implications are made for productivity reasons by operations executives.

Now, consider safety-related technology. It impacts injury risk in four ways. Technology can predict injuries. For example, a container in a warehouse imposes by weight a particularly high injury risk on the facility’s workers. Technology can monitor. The worker can wear a device to monitor actual movement (just as telematics monitors driver behavior). It can assist, as with mechanical equipment. Fourth, technology can completely remove risk.  A robot replaces the worker.

Consider one low tech, very low cost innovation that can help remove a big headache to risk managers.  In a statement on incident reporting, Origami Risk says that “risk managers face challenges both in achieving internal compliance with reporting procedures and with capturing adequate data for any incident.”  The innovation is an app on a mobile device.

That can revolutionize the way hazards and incidents are recorded.  It could be the single cost-effective use of new technology to improve safety. As with telemedicine, it could dramatically impact workers’ comp claims through better reporting on the circumstances of an injury.

I have looked at about six examples of apps that enable the user to record hazards or actual accidents.  These apps have barely penetrated the worksite. With the exception of Washington’s Labor & Industries, I do not know of any insurer or Third Party Administrator (TPA) that has been promoting their use.  The Risk Authority, an affiliate of Stanford’s healthcare system, has nurtured this kind of app the furthest in the form of its Risk Observer app.

Next, consider what risks to focus on in the coming years.  Claims executives say that behavior — driven injuries, such as lifting and slip accidents, can be more expensive than the nature of injury suggests.  But safety professionals are saying that the safety improvements in recent decades were from low hanging fruit. The risks that impose really serious and even fatal injuries have not declined as much, according to a 2015 article by Martin and Black in Professional Safety magazine. 

These risks show up in about ten tasks involving lockout/tagout, confined space entry, working at elevations, and operations of mobile equipment.  The safety profession has written precise rules for these high-risk scenarios. On the agenda for the future is the chance to combine technology innovations and behavior nudges to lower the risks of these serious injuries and fatalities.

Reducing injuries take more that promoting compliance with safety rules. I wonder how actively claims payers draw upon their extraordinary knowledge of injuries and accident risks to create a map that can give priority to safety initiatives.  A few years ago, the Accident Fund showed me that among vehicle-related injuries, only 47% involved vehicle use for road transportation. The balance included towing, store use, and off-road sites.

The path to better work safety appears to include smart targeting and smart use of technology.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter RousmanierePeter Rousmaniere is widely known throughout the workers’ compensation industry, both for his writing and consulting experience. Based in the picture perfect New England town of Woodstock, VT, he is a regular on the conference circuit, and is deeply in tune with trends and developments within the industry. His passion is writing and presenting on issues largely related to immigration, and he maintains a blog on the subject at www.workingimmigrants.com.

 

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