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Preventable Deaths Are Higher Than Ever - Here's How to Help Reduce Them

June 29, 2016

safety-injury.jpgEarlier this month, EHS Today published an interesting article discussing how preventable deaths resulting from injuries have reached an “all-time high.” In this piece, they cited an analysis conducted by the National Safety Council, which found that there were 136,053 preventable injury deaths in the U.S. in 2014 – a 57 percent increase since 1992. As NSC noted, this amounts to someone dying every four minutes, when essentially, they did not have to. That is a remarkably high and concerning number.

This figure relates to any preventable death, in or outside of work, and it covers all age ranges (ages 0 to 65+). However, we have seen a similar and unfortunate trend in workplace fatalities as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2014, a total of 4,821 employees died on the job in the U.S. This amounts to an overall fatality rate of 3.4, up from 3.3 in 2013. Furthermore, fatality rates have tended to plateau in the past decade or so, with year-to-year decreases ranging from only 3 to 5%, and even slight increases in other years.

What's the cause for the increase?

So why the increase, which seems to be occurring both in and outside of work? This is obviously a very complex problem, with many factors to consider. Safety professionals, senior company leaders, and researchers have been investigating the issue of fatality prevention for some time now. Progress has been made in terms of identifying certain precursors and best practices that can prevent fatalities, but clearly, there is still much room for improvement.

Luckily, we can continue our efforts to save lives through increased awareness and education about hazards, improved engineering and design, better training, and stronger enforcement of safety policies and procedures. However, are these sufficient? After all, many organizations have been utilizing these approaches for decades and are still experiencing fatalities.

As I think about injury-related deaths being so prevalent in and outside of work, I think about the personal factors that are stable across situations. At work, individuals deal with a variety of hazards that are inherent in their jobs and workplaces. These will vary on any given day, hour or minute, based on what is going on that day. But there are also stable individual factors that a person has on any given day regardless of the place, situation, or work being done. These stable factors include personality traits, mental abilities, values, beliefs, and other characteristics unique to that individual.

Sure - that individual will experience temporary certain states, such as fatigue, distraction, or mood changes, but the stable characteristics are always there; together they make that person who they are. This means that we take our traits with us everywhere we go, and these can either decrease or increase our personal exposure to risk at home or on the job.

To be clear, I am not saying that individual traits and characteristics are the reason for the increases we are seeing in preventable injury-related fatalities. People do not operate in a vacuum, and as mentioned earlier, there are numerous contributing factors to any fatality which are completely outside of the individual and vary by situation, location, etc.

Are more policies and training the answer?

Looking at individual psychological characteristics such as personality, ability and values can play a valuable role in preventing deaths anywhere. Particularly with work-related fatalities, the immediate focus after an employee death is often on adding additional policies, modifying equipment, or providing more technical training. We tell our employees, “Don’t be complacent,” “Wear your PPE at all times,” and “Stay focused” even though research shows increasingly that this is simply harder for some employees than it is for others.

In my experience working with organizations across many industries, this point is often unknown or ignored. Yet there is statistical evidence from dozens of studies showing that traits and abilities related to safety (our SafetyDNA) vary by individual and can profoundly impact the extent to which we perceive risks and hazards, and whether we even recognize them at all. Taking this into account better enables us to account for some of the human factors that can easily be ignored as part of the bigger picture.

A fatality is the worst thing that can happen, short of multiple fatalities. Therefore, it is critical that we take into consideration anything which can potentially help us prevent one in the future. When a person knows his or her own psychological strengths and limitations, and which mental aspects of his personal safety are most affected by common situational triggers (e.g., fatigue, multi-tasking, running behind schedule), he/she can be better prepared to manage risks and unexpected hazards anywhere – at home, on the road, or at work.

Final thoughts

Since we know preventable fatalities happen anywhere, knowing our personal safety traits that we bring with us every day can potentially help save our life, as well as the life of a loved one or co-worker.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.