“Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.”  George Carlin

While work-related fatalities are not a significant portion of all motor vehicle deaths, motor vehicle deaths are a significant portion of work-related fatalities.

In 2015, there were 38,300 motor vehicle deaths.  Of those, 1,806 were work-related—less than 5%.  That same year, the last year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported injury, illness, and fatality data, there were a total of 4,836 work-related fatalities from all causes. Transportation incidents from all modes of transportation—planes, trains, automobiles, boats—accounted for over 40% of all work-related fatalities, and consistently has accounted for about 40% of work-related fatalities for years. No other cause of work-related fatal injury comes anywhere close.

Not What You Think

When they first hear these statistics, many people immediately begin talking about their commutes.  Commutes, as harrowing as they may be, are not considered work-related.  Then they begin talking about truck drivers, cab drivers, bus drivers, delivery drivers…  Make no mistake.  People who drive for a living are vulnerable.  The average fatality rate in the United States for all jobs, public or private, was last reported at 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalents per year.  The fatality rate for drivers was 24.3 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs per year, and most of those fatalities were, in fact, transportation fatalities.

But drivers are not the only workers killed in transportation incidents.

Manufacturing in the U.S. had 354 fatal accidents in 2015, with transportation account for 27% of them. A higher percentage than for slips, trips, and falls.  Higher than for contact with object.  The chemical process industries in the U.S. had 57 fatality accidents in 2015, and over the past 10 years, has experienced a fatality rate of 2.2 fatalities per 100,000 FTEs per year, about a third less than workplaces in general.  Even with its intense focus on process safety—fires and explosions, and exposure to harmful substances and environments—the chemical process industries suffers 18% of its fatalities as a result of transportation incidents.

The Gorilla in the Room

The Bureau of Labor Statistics characterizes work-related fatalities as having one of six causes:

  • Contact with Objects and Equipment
  • Slips, Trips, and Falls
  • Exposure to Harmful Substances or Environments
  • Transportation Accidents
  • Fires and Explosions
  • Assaults and Violent Acts

In the manufacturing industry, safety programs tend to focus on personnel safety, in the form of contact with objects and of slips, trips, and falls.  These accounted for 29% and 18% of manufacturing industry fatalities, respectively.  Undoubtedly, they would be higher, were it not for the safety programs in place, and there should be no thought that they are misplaced.  However, transportation fatalities are emerging as the leading cause of fatalities in the manufacturing industry.

As a subset of the manufacturing industry, the chemical process industries (CPI) tend to focus their safety programs more on process safety than on personnel safety, more on fires and explosions, and on exposure to harmful substances or environments, than on anything else. In 2015, fires and explosions accounted for 10% of CPI fatalities and exposure to harmful substances or environments accounted for 8% of CPI fatalities.  Transportation incidents, at 18%, accounted for as many of the CPI fatalities.  Again, process safety incidents would undoubtedly account for a higher percentage were it not for the focus on process safety, but transportation fatalities are emerging as a significant contributor to fatal work-related accidents in the CPI.

Transportation fatalities are a significant contributor to work-related fatalities, but that is not where we spend our safety efforts.  A fatality as the result of an explosion makes the evening news.  A fatality as the result of a car crash does not. Yet neither worker is any less dead than the other. Somehow, we are willing to simply tolerate transportation fatalities.  They are the gorilla in the room.

Are We Contributing?

One concern is that we are not doing enough to reduce transportation fatalities.  Another concern is that we have policies, or at least a culture, that contributes to transportation fatalities.

The leading contributors of traffic fatalities are not wearing seatbelts, alcohol, speed, and distracted driving. Employers with driving policies typically address all four contributors in their policies.  However, few do anything to enforce those policies.  There is typically a culture that believes what people do in their car is their own business, unless something goes wrong.  Then the policy gets trotted out as a bludgeon. It is no good to have a policy if no one takes it seriously.

Taking seriously the need to wear seatbelts should be straightforward.  Co-workers should remind one another to wear their seat belts, and it should be unacceptable to do otherwise.  While wearing seatbelts is a personal choice when not at work, just as smoking cigarettes is a personal choice, no one should accept that smoking in a chemical facility is a personal choice.  The same applies to wearing seat belts while travelling for work.

As for alcohol, there should be no need to remind people that they should not drive or do anything else work-related while incapacitated by alcohol. Not only should we not operate heavy machinery while incapacitated by alcohol, we should not design heavy machinery, or sell or buy heavy machinery while incapacitated by alcohol.  While the three-martini lunch is largely a thing of the past, there are still expectations in many organizations to lubricate dinner meetings with alcohol.

Unlike seatbelts and alcohol policies, which really have no downside for an organization, speeding is one where the benefit is measurable and obvious, while the cost is uncertain.  If an employee is speeding while performing work-related travel, they get to where they are going faster, which is clearly a benefit.  If they are stopped and ticketed, that is not a cost an employer ever bears.  So it is easy to see why this happens and why there is little incentive to discourage speeding. Even if there is no explicit instruction to speed, there may be implicit signals that encourage it. Admittedly, it is not speed that kills, but variance in speed.  If everyone is going the same speed, whether high or low, the risk is lower than when drivers are traveling at widely varying speeds.  An aggressive driver that is passing and frequently changing lanes causes more accidents than one that is going with the flow.  Likewise, a driver that is poking along, inducing others to drive more aggressively than they otherwise would, also causes more accidents than one that is going with the flow.  That said, the faster a driver is going, the less time they have to react to an emergency situation.

Finally, there is distracted driving. All sorts of things qualify as distracted driving.  Engaging in conversation, eating, drinking, looking at a map, reading the newspaper, finding a different radio station, or switching CDs for an audio book.  Anything that takes a driver’s mind off the road, that takes a driver’s eyes off the road, or that takes a driver’s hands off the steering wheel is a distraction. Texting is the most egregious because it does all three, but even talking on a cell phone is a distraction.  Hand’s free helps keep a driver’s hands on the steering wheel, but it doesn’t address taking the driver’s mind off the road. We contribute to distracted driving when we call people that we know are driving, especially if there is a culture that expects people to answer when they receive a call.

How Do We Change This?

The first step we can each take is to drive safely and actively encourage our co-workers to drive safely.  It is hard for many of us to say something when we see something that’s not right, but that’s the time to say it.  Not later. So, comment on the seatbelts, the drinking, the speeding and aggressive driving, the distracted driving.  Intervene.  If you are a passenger, it’s your life at stake. But just as importantly, when we see something that is right, notice it and speak up.  Everyone need encouragement.

The second step is to change your behavior.  Turn your cell phone off and put it out of reach when you get in the car. If you are calling, make the first thing you say, “Are you driving?”  If so, say that you will call back later and hang up.  Don’t ask “Is this a good time?” If they answered the phone, they already think it’s a good time. Don’t be party to an unsafe act.

The third step, if it is in your power, is to work on changing policies and culture within your workplace. If you are a safety professional, consider whether you are investing as much in safe motor vehicle policies and training as you are in other areas, especially when you consider the relative cost of each.

We live in a culture that accepts motor vehicle fatalities in a way that is unthinkable for other types of causes.  Yet, when it is all said and done, a dead co-worker is no less dead for having died in a car wreck.  Continue to work on other causes—personnel safety and process safety—because we have made great progress there and do not want to lose that.  But let’s also turn our attention more to transportation safety, the gorilla in the room.