Workplace Safety in the Covid-19 Era – Lessons from the Past
The latest workplace injury statistics available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are from 2018, before the advent of Covid-19. According to those statistics, there were 2,834,500 non-fatal workplace illnesses and injuries and 5,250 fatal workplace incidents in 2018. It will be interesting to see how and if those numbers change given the current work environment.
What do those numbers mean to us? The number 2,834,500 seems very high and if we look at that number alone, it appears there is still much work to do. However, if you look back ten years earlier to 1998, there were 5.9 million non-fatal illnesses/injuries recorded.
In the past, many workplace accidents were caused by insufficient safety measures or equipment. In many circumstances, the people of the past simply lacked the knowledge that we have today.
There are parallels to this now. A pandemic of this scale is unprecedented in modern times. Learning to handle the situation is an ongoing process that takes time. As we work to deal with new health regulations, we can look to the past. Regulations can assist in keeping people safe. As our knowledge grows we can make changes to protect people and workers.
For example, at one time, dangerous materials, such as asbestos, were used that unwittingly caused circumstances that were harmful to workers. Asbestos was thought to be a wonder material that would assist in making structures safer from fires. However, it was later discovered that asbestos causes a type of cancer known as Mesothelioma. For a time, even after the companies making asbestos knew it was harmful, they kept secrets, continuing to distribute the dangerous product due to greed. The Mesothelioma Justice Network was formed to aid those affected by Mesothelioma and their families and continues its work even now, years after asbestos was banned.
Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Labor continues to make new workplace safety regulations and to strengthen previous regulations. For example, currently, OSHA is working on amendments to the regulations covering worker exposure to Beryllium. These OSHA regulations “are designed to enhance worker protections by ensuring that the rule is well-understood and compliance is simple and straightforward”.
Beryllium is used to make everything from cell phones to nuclear reactors. Because it has many unique uses it continues to be a valued material. However, daily exposure to airborne beryllium is not safe for workers. This is why strict and clear regulations need to be in place as to its use.
Many of the workplace accidents and illnesses of today are sprains and strains, or due to trips, slips, and falls. Back injuries are also ever-present. Although these seem to be minor, many of these can be prevented through proper workplace safety. In many instances, companies are already providing ergonomically correct office equipment to help prevent some issues. Workplace safety committees are on-site to address worker safety education and to ensure that safety equipment is available and properly maintained. The role of the safety committee is important; they not only save the employer money by preventing accidents but also and more importantly protect their co-workers from potential harm.
The lowered rate of workplace illnesses and injury in the U.S. is a result of learning from mistakes, keeping companies accountable, and adjusting regulations to make work safer for workers each and every day.
As we move forward in the Covid-19 era, it is too soon to see what long-term changes there will be on workplace safety. Will there be fewer accidents as more people are at home? Or will there be more accidents as people are stretched to cope with the pandemic?
Looking at the past, we can see that overall, strides forward have been made in making workplaces safer. However, people are still injured every day on the job. Anyone who has been injured at work, or had a family member injured at work, will agree that there is always room for improvement.