“The only thing we have learnt from experience is that we learn nothing from experience.” — Chinua Achebe
Back in December 2021, the BLS report showed that for 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, the total number of work-related fatalities in the U.S. was 4,764. That was significantly less than for the year before. The workplace fatality rate in 2020 was also down slightly, but at 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalents (FTEs), it wasn’t outside of the 3.5±0.2 band we’ve been in since 2009, when the fatality rate in the U.S. stopped improving.
Some thought that perhaps the pandemic had a silver lining. Admittedly, 377,883 Covid-19 deaths was a high price to pay for 500 fewer work-related fatalities. Still, there was hope that perhaps the care we were taking to slow the spread of the virus would also impact safety in general; perhaps, even outlast the pandemic. “Will things go back to the way they were before the pandemic, or will we seize on what we have learned and make permanent changes to ‘normal’.”
On December 19, 2023, the BLS released the fatality statistics for 2022. What can we learn?
Back to Pre-pandemic Levels
The number of work-related fatalities in 2022 was 5,486, which was up from 2021 (5,190 fatalities), and right in line with the 5,333 work-related fatalities suffered by U.S. workers in 2019, before the pandemic. As the economy improved, the number of workers increased. It wasn’t surprising to see the total number of work-related fatalities increase as people returned to work. The real story is in the fatality rate, which accounts for an increase in the number of people in the workforce.
In 2022, the overall fatality rate in the United States was 3.7 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs. This is still within the 3.5±0.2 band we’ve seen since 2009 but we might be seeing the beginning of an upward trend. (If it is, we’ll only be able to identify the inflection point in hindsight.) However, we are certainly not seeing the Year of the Pandemic as a harbinger of safer times to come.
The BLS characterizes the causes of work-related fatalities as one of six types of “events.” To understand the total number of work-related fatalities and the fatality rate, it is essential to understand the contribution of these six causes. There is readily available data going back to 1996, so rather than look at year-to-year changes, which reflect random variation as much as they reflect trends, let’s take the long view.
Fires and explosions: Before the pandemic, the percentage of work-related fatalities attributed to fires and explosions was the lowest of the causes and was falling. In 1996, fires and explosions caused 3% of work-related fatalities. Despite fluctuations up and down, the rate was down to 2% before the pandemic. The pandemic did nothing to change that general downward trend. Nothing to see there but good news.
Exposure to harmful substances or environment: This category covers a range of exposures. Drowning. Asphyxiation. Electrocution. For two decades, the percentage of work-related fatalities due to harmful exposures was steady at 7 ~ 10%. When the fentanyl crisis started in 2013, the number of work-related drug overdoses (another form of exposure to harmful substances) also started to climb. It hasn’t stopped climbing. In 2022, the percentage of work-related fatalities resulting from exposure to harmful substances was 15%. The pandemic had no impact one way or the other. There were 525 work-related fatalities due to unintentional substance use, accounting for all of the increase.
Falls, slips, and trips: The percentage of work-related fatalities due to falls, slips, and trips was 11% in 1996. Then it climbed. It was over 17% in 2017, the year that OSHA put new fall protection regulations into effect. Since those new regulations, the percentage has stopped climbing—in 2022, the percentage was 16%. The pandemic had no impact, one way or the other.
Contact with objects: For two decades, the percentage of work-related fatalities due to contact with objects was in the range of 15 to 18%. In 2013, the percentage began a slight decline. The percentage of work-related fatalities due to contact with objects was 13.5% in 2022, and the pandemic appears to have had no impact on that modest downward trend.
Violence. Violence accounted for 19% of all work-related fatalities in 1996. It has not been higher since then, being between 13% and 18% every year, with no discernable pattern year-to-year. Many spoke about a spike in murders during the pandemic, but that seems to have been domestic violence rather than work-related violence. In 2019, it was 16%. In 2020 and 2021, 15%. In 2022, 16%. In the long view, there was no change due to the pandemic.
Transportation. The leading cause of work-related fatalities has been transportation for as far back as there are records. For the period from 1996 through 2019, the average percentage of work-related fatalities due to transportation incidents was 41.6% ± 1.9%. Then, in 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, the year we began working from home and meeting on Zoom, the percentage took a statistically significant dive to 37%. In 2021 and 2022, the percentage was 38%, still a statistically significant shift down. The pandemic led to an improvement in the fatality rate due to transportation incidents.
A Silver Lining
For the most part, the Covid-19 pandemic had no impact on the work-related fatality rate. Causes that were trending downward continued to trend downward, regardless of the pandemic. Causes that were trending upward continue to trend upward, and causes that were flat remain flat, each regardless of the pandemic. There is one bright spot, however, a silver lining.
During the pandemic, we were forced to embrace technology that allowed us to work from home and to meet remotely. As a result, there were fewer work-related fatalities due to transportation incidents. And having learned to use this technology, people are travelling less, even as Covid-19 fades into the background. This is having a lasting impact on safety.
Some jobs must be done on site, but the pandemic taught us that many jobs and tasks can be done remotely. Let’s continue to do that. Reducing the travel time increases our productivity and it keeps us off the road, presenting less of a hazard to ourselves and to those who must be on the road, like truck drivers. So, let’s not be too quick to insist on getting back to the old normal. This new normal is making the world a safer place. Let’s learn from this experience.