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Occupational safety: Where workers fear to tread

Even now, after decades of government-directed safety regulations, factories and industrial environments can still be extremely dangerous places for humans to work in.

Despite the current trend towards collaborative robots and the largely conceptual framework of all-pervasive cyber-physical systems, where previously dangerous machines – such as industrial robotic arms and autonomous mobile vehicles – are increasingly designed to be inherently safe for humans to work directly with, thousands of deaths and injuries still occur in workshops and on the shop floor.

Statistics released by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that more than 5,000 workers were killed on the job over the course of 2016 in the US alone, although this figure includes data from many different sectors, not just manufacturing, logistics and industry. 

Worldwide, especially in countries with far less regulation, oversight and enforcement with financial and other penalties, the number of fatalities is many times greater.

A 2017 study by the Singapore-based Workplace Safety and Health Institute for the International Commission on Occupational Health, in co-operation with the International Labour Organization, and based in part on data from the World Health Organization, sheds some more light on the issue.

The WSH Institute estimates that 2.78 million deaths occur annually worldwide in work-related incidents and accidents. Some 2.4 million of those were described as “work-related diseases”, and “fatal accidents” accounted for the rest.

The report notes: “In total, it is estimated that more than 7,500 people die every day; 1,000 from occupational accidents and 6,500 from work-related diseases.

“The rate of fatal occupational accidents increased slightly. The number of non-fatal occupational accidents was estimated to be 374 million, increasing significantly from 2010.

“The main reason was that a higher under-reporting estimate was used compared to the previous estimates.”

The report also notes that the number of “non-fatal occupational accidents” was estimated to be 374 million, which is a “significant increase from 2010”.

The sectors highlighted in the report include:

  • industry;
  • mining;
  • manufacturing;
  • energy production;
  • construction;
  • farming;
  • fishing; and
  • forestry.

Europe was found to have the lowest number of occupational accidents, which Africa had the highest.

And while the vast majority of the injuries and deaths were related to diseases, for which there may be different types of solutions, the number of people hurt or killed in work-related accidents seems staggeringly high, and what’s probably more concerning is that it is increasing.

Back in America, OHSA points to a particular set of problems which it calls the “Fatal Four”, in the construction sector, where more than 20 percent – or about a thousand – of all workplace deaths occur.

The “Fatal Four” causes OHSA lists are:

  1. Falls – accounts for highest number of fatalities, at almost 40 per cent;
  2. Struck by object – just over 9 percent;
  3. Electrocutions – more than 8 percent;
  4. Caught in-between – which refers to accidents such as being compressed by collapsing structures, for example, at 7 percent.

And while data specifically relating to deaths and injuries in factories are difficult to find, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of something it calls “days away from work”, or “DAFW”, a categorization which provides an indication as to the possible extent of the issue, since that includes “nonfatal injuries and illnesses”.

On the positive side, the BLS notes that, among the 19 private industry sectors, “only manufacturing and finance and insurance experienced statistically significant changes in their overall rates of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in 2017 – each declined by 0.1 cases per 100 full-time-equivalent workers compared to 2016”.

However, the total number of “nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses” remains high at approximately 2.8 million.

In manufacturing, BLS says the incidence rate of total recordable cases in manufacturing decreased in 2017.

However, the DAFW rate was unchanged from 2016 at 93 cases per 10,000 workers. There were 115,550 DAFW cases in manufacturing, which was essentially unchanged from 2016.

The median days away from work in manufacturing was 8, one day fewer than in 2016.

Four sub-sector occupation groups accounted for 67 percent of DAFW cases in 2017, including:

  1. other production workers (30,210 cases);
  2. metal and plastic workers (19,610 cases);
  3. material moving workers (15,260 cases); and
  4. assemblers and fabricators (12,140).

The fourth group among these – assemblers and fabricators – was the only one with a decrease, down 900 DAFW cases in 2017 to 12,140.

The number of DAFW cases where the event or exposure was overexertion and bodily reaction fell 1,690 cases to 40,680 in 2017. The rate decreased to 32.7 cases per 10,000 workers from 34.1 in 2016.

Musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 34 percent of the DAFW cases in manufacturing
and fell 1,930 cases to 38,950 in 2017.

The rate was 31.4 cases per 10,000 full-time workers, down from 32.9 in 2016. The median days away from work was 12, two days fewer than in 2016.

Sprains, strains, and tears were the leading type of injury in manufacturing at 34,110, unchanged from 2016. The rate of 27.5 cases per 10,000 workers was also unchanged from 2016.

The median days away for injuries from sprains, strains, and tears was 10, one day fewer than in 2016.

Image credit: Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry