Injuries at work decrease as economy shifts

Improvements in training and technology also noted by safety experts

April 25, 2002|By Michael Davis | Michael Davis,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - Nationwide, people are hurting for work.

Heavy lifting strains backs. Chemicals sear eyes and lungs. Sharp metal corners make deep cuts with the precision of a scalpel.

The changing nature of the economy, technology and better efforts by employers and employees are making workplaces safer overall.

Always some hazards

But some jobs remain a minefield of hazards.

"There's all kinds of stuff in here that will cut your fingers off," said Scott Strange, meat department manager for a Farm Fresh store in Norfolk, as his blade flashes around a chunk of beef shoulder. "It becomes second nature. You watch where you grab and make sure everybody keeps their knives out of the way."

Federal data suggest that the average worker is facing fewer dangers on the job.

Three out of 100 full-time employees suffered an occupational injury or illness bad enough to require days off or reduced duty in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That is nearly one-fourth lower than the proportion a decade earlier.

While Virginia's average is not declining as quickly, workers are safer than nationally. Just 2.6 percent of private-sector workers in the state had a lost-time injury or illness in 2000, down one-fifth from 1991.

Analysts attribute much of the decrease to shifts in work forces and the economic mix.

As the heavy production sectors - historically the most dangerous - continue a three-decade decline and more workers are employed in service positions, illness and injury rates are falling.

In Virginia, for instance, manufacturing has shrunk from nearly one in four jobs in 1971 to less than one in nine last year.

"Manufacturing and coal mining are dangerous," said Mary Ann Link, chief deputy commissioner of the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission.

"There are more computer operators, bank tellers and employment consultants now."

Least hazardous

The least hazardous occupations are in retailing, administration and service occupations.

But other forces are also helping clean up workplace hazards, observers say.

Among them:

Regulatory pressure. Awareness and enforcement of on-the-job safety have increased since the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed more than three decades ago.

Critics such as consumer protection group Public Citizen have complained that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - and the 26 states, including Virginia, that administer their own occupational safety programs - do not adequately ride herd on some employers.

But Link credits OSHA with reducing on-the-job dangers.

The agency conducted nearly 3,200 inspections in Virginia in fiscal 2000, levying more than $5 million in penalties.

Tighter cost control by businesses. As health-care costs have exploded, insurers are pressuring their customers to improve safety in their shops or face higher premiums.

The average total workers' compensation claim in Virginia topped $27,000 last year, or nearly triple the average payout a decade earlier.

And in addition to cutting workers' comp premiums, safer workplaces bolster productivity, Link said.

"It's much more financially successful if everybody is on the job working than if they're out sick or on disability," she said. "It's extremely good business."

Technology. Back belts for lifting and repetitive stress injury cuffs for typing have become commonplace, but companies are embracing other creative tools to prevent injury.

Ford Motor Co.'s Norfolk F-series truck plant is heavily automated: A little more than 2,000 workers can build about 1,000 vehicles a day. Heavy lifting of engines and other pieces is managed with small cranes, and a gauntlet of automated welding arms handles the assembly of the trucks' cabs.

Jobs are ergonomically engineered for the least-awkward bending and stretching.

Farm Fresh issues its meat cutters steel or tough Kevlar gloves, which are all but impervious to knives. Stock clerks use boxcutters with guards on the blades.

"You want your employees to feel safe and work in a safe environment," said Margaret Kerney, the retailer's area risk-control manager.

But while workplaces are getting safer overall, accidents still happen. Predictably, the toughest jobs in Virginia are those that require the use of heavy machinery.

Topping the list: Air transportation, not surprising in the state that's home to busy Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

Air transport employees are more than four times as likely to suffer a serious injury or illness than average.

At the least, workers in ramp areas - where aircraft park and taxi - can expect to strain backs and arms loading and unloading luggage.

Those who maintain the planes have to watch for sharp metal. Luggage tugs darting around the area could clip inattentive employees, and puddles of lubricants create fall hazards.

And, most dangerously, workers face deafening, destructive jet blast from the rear of the powerful engines, or even risk being pulled into the front.

`Head on a swivel'

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