“The future depends on what you do today.”  — Mahatma Gandhi

“How intensive is the view on safety in the engineering, manufacturing, and industrial world?”

As this semester closes, one of my students asked me what I thought personally about safety. He graduates in a couple of weeks, and went on to ask, “What is the key to enabling safety to be both widely understood and followed without incidents and accidents resulting from shortcuts and unsafe actions besides bodies like OSHA?”

He wanted more than slogans. This is what I wrote.

Dear Austin,

I believe the United States doesn’t take workplace safety as seriously as it should or as it could.  The work-related fatality rate in the United States, at 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 full time equivalents, is twice as high as the work-related fatality rate in the European Union, and four times higher than the work-related fatality rate in two of Europe’s most industrialized nations, the United Kingdom and Germany. The only European countries with a worse work-related fatality rate than the United States are Romania and Luxembourg. We’re number one? Not even close.

As the EU and in particular, the United Kingdom and Germany, demonstrate, we could do better, but we don’t.

Why not?

I think our country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic gives a glimpse into why we don’t have a better safety record. We know that wearing masks reduces the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. We know that social distancing reduces the spread of the virus and the disease. We know that gathering in large groups promotes the spread. We know that our actions have an impact on others. And yet—and yet—large swathes of the U.S. population ignore these facts and do what pleases them, with no regard for others. Others seize on any excuse to disbelieve these facts, again to give themselves permission to do what pleases them. And so, we’re well into the third wave of the pandemic, with death tolls higher than they have ever been.

Being safer requires sacrifice and the voluntary surrender of liberties. If it is not voluntary, then the Law of Conservation of Recklessness kicks in: when compelled to be safer in one area, we relax our guard in another area, thus maintaining the overall level of safety we have accepted. To be safer requires that we choose to accept constraints: stopping at stop signs, not eating food that has been left out, washing our hands after using the toilet, wearing a hard hat, earplugs, and safety glasses. All of these things pose a burden. When people understand that but accept the burden in order to make themselves and the people around them safer, we have safer workplaces and in general, a safer society.

We can blame our political leaders, we can blame OSHA, we can blame society, but ultimately the blame is in us. Safety is the result of individual choices. Where our political leaders, OSHA, and society have a role to play is in setting norms and expectations, and in showing us how to be safer. Their most important role is in demonstrating to us what safer looks like, so that as individuals, we can choose to be safer and then behave in ways that are safer.

Some industries take safety more seriously than others and as a result, do a good job of modelling those behaviors for employees.  The chemical industry, for instance, has a work-related fatality rate of 2 fatalities per 100,000 full time equivalents, about half the overall fatality rate.  That is in spite of, or perhaps because of, its reputation for being a hazardous industry. Logging and commercial fishing, on the other hand, run around 100 fatalities per 100,000 full time equivalents. They could be safer, but there seems to be an expectation in those industries that that is just the way it is.

As long as we accept less safe work as a price we are willing to pay for our personal liberty, we are going to be unsafe.

Will we get safer?

I believe we will get safer, but it will not be something we wander into. It took the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to shock the conscious of the nation into demanding better building fire safety. But it came. It took Bhopal to get the chemical industry around the world to take chemical process safety seriously, but it did (despite the incidents that continue to remind us that we’re not there yet).

Safer workplaces are a choice. OSHA can continue to define what “safe” looks like and enforce norms on employers that stray from the fold, but OSHA cannot get too far out in front, or no one will follow. Political and business leaders can model safer behavior, and employers can create workplaces where it is easier to choose safety, but ultimately it will be up to us.

What can you do?

Be safe. You have no idea who will be inspired by your example, so always model safe behaviors. Make it possible for others to be safe. Consider safety as you design products and work processes, as you schedule workers.

I have hope for the future of safety. I hope you do, too.