Incident Report Tracking: Making Sense of the Statistics
Mark Twain famously fumed that, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics!” He also made the wry remark that, “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable”. Certainly, statistics can often be ‘flexible’ and can be too easily used to prove (or disprove) just about any argument or bias. We all know how we feel when learning the ‘official’ statistics regarding the annual inflation rate or the latest employment figures. Somehow those figures can feel somewhat fudged and not entirely believable. There is no denying that statistics don’t always tell the full story or can even tell a disjointed story.
However, to dismiss outright the statistics issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) regarding fatalities in the U.S. workplace is foolhardy and, let it be said, unnecessary. After all, this division of the U.S. Department of Labor has no reason to underplay or overstate the statistics, not to mention that to do so would contravene its federal mandate. The most recent statistics on fatalities released by the BLS were in its ‘National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2014,’ as released on September 17th, 2015 (the statistics for 2015 not yet having been released at time of this writing). The report’s findings are particularly enlightening with regard to who has died how and doing what in the American workplace.
Of particular interest is the first chart in the report, which appears as a pie chart on page 3 of the 14-page BLS report. The said chart divides fatal occupational injuries according to six main categories. And the results graphically delineated as such are very interesting. Transportation-related deaths accounted for no less than 40% of occupational deaths in 2014. Deaths resulting from falls, slips and trips comprise 17% of all occupational fatalities. That could be worrisome if you are the safety manager of a logistics company with a fleet of long-haul vehicles (i.e. with potential transportation deaths) that also has depots and warehousing facilities (e.g. where falls can occur at loading docks or at stacks, etc.). The same could be said of a safety manager on a mine where deaths due to falling from heights or involving massive mobile equipment are all too common.
And what are OSH departments to make of the 16% of workplace deaths due to homicides and violence and other injuries by persons or animals? How can safety systems counter the continuing high levels of ‘going postal,’ that frightening workplace occurrence that seems so quintessentially American? Deaths (15%) due to contact with objects and equipment seem more solidly ‘safety-related’ but any safety professional knows how tricky it can be to prevent deaths from exposure to harmful substances or environments (8%) or fires and explosions (3% of 2014 deaths). What to make of all the statistics and data in the BLS report will be determined by your perspective or needs as a safety professional, not to mention your organization’s risk profile. What these results issued by the BLS should be is essential reading – every year.
The temptation to diminish statistics, not to mention to hide statistics, is often too great for safety professionals. It is deeply human to be suspicious of that which can be easily manipulated or usurped. But they can serve a purpose. For example, statistics garnered from an incident reporting system can be an invaluable part of non conformance management and incident recall, if they are handled objectively and with the best interest of the safety system at all times. As with so much in safety management, context is everything.