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March 14, 2011
Employees Put Workplace Safety First, But Politicians, Media May Not

A white paper by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago for the Public Welfare Foundation reports that workplace safety regulations are rated as the most important labor standard by the general public. In 2010, 85% of respondents in an NORC survey reported safety as “very important,” according to Dr. Tom W. Smith, who authored the white paper/study, titled “Public Attitudes Towards and Experiences with Workplace Safety.” Family and maternity leave placed second (with 78% of respondents deeming it very important).

The study drew on dozens of surveys and polls conducted by NORC, a leading academic survey operation, “think tank,” and public opinion firm. NORC’s analysis sought to gain a picture of Americans’ experiences with workplace safety issues.

Federal Oversight

Dr. Smith noted that in the political arena, workplace safety has been rated as important, but not necessarily the top priority over the past 10 years, and that in the media, coverage of workplace safety issues has been sporadic over time.

He did note, however, in his white paper, that a substantial majority (83%) of respondents to one survey (the FD America for Allstate, January 2010) believe that the federal government is needed to monitor business issues such as financial fraud, environmental pollution, and workplace safety.

While it’s significant that both workers and the general public believe that the federal government should pay attention to workplace safety issues, Dr. Smith highlighted the shortcomings of the existing regulatory system. “Under the present regulatory set-up, it is impossible to come close to enforcing even the current safety standards. There are about 8.6 million workplaces and just around 2,400 federal and state inspectors—or about one inspector to monitor 3,500 establishments every year.”

Workers’ Safety Confidence

Perhaps many employers are doing a fairly good job of policing their own workplace safety practices: Dr. Smith reported high worker satisfaction with physical safety conditions of their workplace. “From 1999 to 2009, between 63% to 76% [of workers] were completely satisfied with conditions and this ranked first or second among 15 job characteristics. Moreover, satisfaction grew over time from 63% completely satisfied in 1999 to 76% in 2009.”

Dr. Smith cited two major concerns regarding workplace safety. One was workplace stress; over one-third of respondents found their work stressful. “Stress, of course, is both directly a work-related detriment and a condition that contributes to other work-related illnesses and accidents.”

The other regarded work conditions, which left a significant number of workers (over 36%) feeling exhausted at the end of their workday.

Meanwhile, what the study called adverse work conditions existed for 8% of worker/respondents.

“Adverse workplace conditions and resulting injuries are most heavily concentrated among less educated workers in lower paying and less prestigious jobs,” Dr. Smith explained.

Adverse working conditions cover such environmental challenges as working in an environment that is very hot or cold, a tightly confined space, or even having to repeatedly operate a piece of dangerous equipment without regular breaks.

Adverse working conditions often tire workers, and tired workers are more prone to having accidents and suffering injuries.

Workplace Accident Statistics

Dr. Smith cautioned readers that while workers and the general public seem to express satisfaction about physical safety practices in the workplace, satisfaction with job-related stress is very low, and some employees experience dangerous working conditions.

“Such [dangerous] conditions mean that workplace accidents are far from rare. About 11% to 12% of workers report an on-the-job injury during the last year, and 37% have had a workplace accident that required medical treatment.

Additionally, in recent years, 5,000 to 6,000 workers die annually from work-related illnesses or injuries.”

[Editor’s note: These statistics come from various U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports cited on the References page of the white paper.]

Resources for HR

Even one worker death and one worker injury are too many at your workplace. “Unsafe working conditions end up costing the public dearly,” commented Robert Shull, program officer for Workers’ Rights at the Public Welfare Foundation. “But no matter what the cost to the general public, the workers and their families pay the highest price.”

To access and read the full report, visit tinyurl.com/34mtvba. For federal regulatory information regarding worker safety, go to www.osha.gov.

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