Just in time for the Labor Day holiday, the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) released a study indicating 85 percent of workers rank safety on the job as their top labor standard. NORC’s report, Public Attitudes towards and Experiences with Workplace Safety, assembled the results of dozens polls and surveys to assess public opinion about US labor standards and practices, such as minimum wage, maternity leave, paid sick days and overtime pay. Of the 1,461 workers surveyed in 2010, 85% gave “workplace safety regulations” the top rank: very important. Despite this finding, the authors note that
“media coverage of workplace safety issues has been sporadic and evaluation of public attention to the issue even rarer.”
A large majority of workers indicate that workplace safety is a priority for their management (90%), and compromises or shortcuts are not taken when workers safety is at stake (87%). That’s the good news. The challenge and duty of our worker protection regulatory system is to identify and take action against those who do dismiss or ignore health and safety hazards and workers’ concerns.
When most of us think of worker safety issues we picture dangerous saws, piercing noise, towers of scaffolding or toxic substances. These physical and chemical hazards are important and contribute to significant numbers of injuries and deaths. Another category of factors has received less (or no) attention by regulators: work organization. NIOSH defines work organization as the way “jobs are designed and performed, and the management and production methods and accompanying human resource policies that influence job design.” The degree of control individuals have over their work not only influences their well-being, but also been identified as contributory factors in occupational injuries, and even workplace catastrophes. In the BP Texas City disaster where 15 workers were killed, the US Chemical Safety Board found:
“operators involved in the startup were fatigues, having worked 29 straight days of 12-hour shifts. By the day of the start-up, the board operator had an accumulated sleep debt of 43 hours. Sleep deprivation and fatigue have been cited as important causes of accidents in many sectors…but the petrochemical industry lacks established guidelines for preventing worker fatigue.”
The occupational health community knows that extended work shifts are associated with adverse health consequences and increased safety risks.
In the NORC’s report, stress at work was listed as a safety concerns for 34% of those surveyed, and most thought it was a contributing factor in work-related injuries. Its author, Tom W. Smith, notes:
“Exhaustion, dangerous working conditions and other negative experiences at work are reported by many workers.”
When I read the word “exhaustion,” and considered its implications for workplace safety, I recalled the recent OSHA press briefing on the Kleen Energy explosion (previous post), which robbed six men’s lives. Two reporters focused on the issue of the laborers’ excessive work hours (no 40 hour work weeks for those men) and its potential contribution to the disaster. The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Smith commented:
When I made the calls to some of the family members [of the deceased] they were very concerned about the work week that their spouses and relatives were having to undergo. And they were alluding to the fact that they were exhausted, and that they were overworked, and there wasn’t a good explanation except to hurry, hurry up with the work. In some instances it was, I was led to believe, that safety may not have been the highest priority, and there was concern on the fact, that the family members saw that in terms of their family members coming home in the evening or on different shifts being fully exhausted, and even repeating to them that there were some things being done that would put them at risk.
Josh Kovner of the Hartford Courant asked pointedly:
“The 84-hour plus weeks that the workers were working–7 days a week–to presumably help meet those [production] deadlines, would OSHA consider that a work safety issue?”
The short answer from OSHA was “No.” As the assistant secretary for OSHA explained: “The actual amount of time they are working, no, but we would certainly look at the various conditions that led to injuries, or illnesses, or fatalities.” In other words, OSHA doesn’t have a regulation—like the rules for pilots or commercial truck drivers—- that limits employee work hours to protect their own safety or that of their co-workers or the public. Whether this type of work organization factor should be addressed by OSHA is another matter. There’s evidence from this recent NORC report that a significant number of workers see it as a workplace safety issue.
Note: The NORC’s study was funded by the Public Welfare Foundation (PWF), a grantmaker supporting “efforts to ensure fundamental rights and opportunities for people in need.” Liz Borkowski and I are recipients of a PWF grant and we are grateful for their support.