Injuries and Illness, Special Topics in Safety Management

BLS: Injuries and Illnesses Have Declined in the 50 Years Since Passage of OSH Act

The rate of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses has declined from 10.9 cases per 100 full-time employees in 1972 to 2.8 cases in 2018, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted in its monthly publication, Beyond the Numbers. The July 2020 issue of the BLS’s publication, “Nearly 50 years of occupational safety and health data,” acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

Safety data, safety statistics

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On December 29, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act into law, creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The act also instructed the secretary of Labor to “develop and maintain an effective program of collection, compilation, and analysis of occupational safety and health statistics,” a responsibility delegated to the BLS.

The BLS first published its Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) based on data collected in 1972. The bureau published its most recent survey last year, compiling data on the counts, incidence rates, and characteristics of nonfatal work-related injuries and illnesses in 2018. The annual SOII includes national- and state-level estimates of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses.

The BLS established its first Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) in 1992 to provide more detailed data and characteristics of fatal workplace injuries. The CFOI reported a high of 6,632 workplace fatalities in 1994 and a low of 4,551 in 2009, according to the BLS.

The BLS noted that the causes of fatal injuries differ from the causes of nonfatal injuries. For example, 39.7% of fatal injuries in 2018 occurred in transportation incidents, while only 5.8% of nonfatal injuries did. Slips, trips, and falls accounted for 27% of nonfatal injuries but only 15.1% of fatal injuries. Violence perpetrated by persons or animals caused 15.8% of fatal workplace injuries but only 7.5% of nonfatal injuries. Contact with equipment or objects account for 15% of fatal injuries and 23.6% of nonfatal injuries. Exposure to hazardous substances or environments resulted in 11.8% of fatal injuries and 4.5% of nonfatal injuries. Fires and explosions accounted for 2.2% of fatal injuries and 0.2% of nonfatal injuries.

In 1992, the BLS also restructured the SOII to capture detailed case circumstances and worker characteristics for injuries and illnesses that resulted in days away from work, implementing a series of recommendations published in 1987 by the National Research Council.

As a result of the act, the SOII provided the first source of comprehensive national data on workplace injuries and illnesses. The data have been used and analyzed by regulatory agencies, policymakers, researchers, and others to try to improve workplace safety and health, according to the BLS. The detailed case circumstances and worker demographics added in 1992 helped identify the types and manner in which different kinds of nonfatal injuries and illnesses occur in the workplace, the bureau said.

The BLS began using machine learning in 2014 to code a subset of cases to analyze large quantities of SOII narratives.