January 29, 2004
In December 2003 the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its 2002 occupational injuries and illnesses data. A total of 4.7 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses were reported in private-industry workplaces during 2002, resulting in a rate of 5.3 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers. Among goods-producing categories, incidence rates ranged from 4.0 cases per 100 workers in mining to 7.2 cases per 100 workers in manufacturing. These numbers are overall averages of subsets in each major category.
Statistics also were reported for cases that resulted in days away from work, a job transfer, or restriction and are grouped in two categories: those requiring at least one day away from work, with or without job transfer or restricted activity, and those requiring job transfer or restriction. The latter category may involve shortened hours; a temporary job change; or temporary restrictions on certain regular duties, such as no heavy lifting. Approximately 2.5 million injuries and illnesses fell within these two categories.
Separately, the overall rate for cases with days away from work was 1.6 per 100 workers, and the overall rate for cases with job transfer or restriction was 1.2. The overall average for manufacturing cases with job transfer or restriction (2.3) was higher than the manufacturing rate for days-away-from-work cases (1.7). In all other divisions recorded, the rate for days-away-from-work cases was higher than the rate for cases with job transfer or restriction.
Where do metalworking industries stand in terms of these averages? Primary-metal industries recorded 10.3 nonfatal injuries and illnesses per 100 workers—the highest rate recorded in durable and nondurable goods manufacturing and much higher than the 7.2 average in overall manufacturing. Of this number, 5.5 cases resulted in days away from work, a job transfer, or restriction.
Transportation equipment manufacturers recorded 10.1 nonfatal injuries and illnesses per 100 workers, and 5.8 of these cases involved days away from work, a job transfer, or restriction.
The fabricated metal products industry recorded 9.8 injuries and illnesses per 100 workers, and 5.1 of these resulted in days away from work, a job transfer, or restriction.
Industrial machinery and equipment manufacturers recorded 6.7 injuries and illnesses per 100, with 3.3 cases involving days away from work, a job transfer, or restriction.
Because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revised the requirements for recording injuries and illnesses effective Jan. 1, 2002, these numbers are not comparable with those from previous years. However, trends are consistent with previous years.
Steel mills and other primary-metal industries routinely rank high in terms of recorded injuries and illnesses when compared to other industries. Why? BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbookoffers an explanation in its description of steel mill working conditions:
Steel mills evoke images of strenuous, hot, and potentially dangerous work. While many dangerous and difficult jobs remain in the steel industry, modern equipment and facilities have helped to change this. The most strenuous tasks were among the first to be automated. For example, computer-controlled machinery helps to monitor and move iron and steel through the production processes, reducing the need for heavy labor. In some cases, workers now monitor and control the equipment from air-conditioned rooms.
Nevertheless, large machinery and molten metal can be hazardous, unless safety procedures are observed. Hard hats, safety shoes, protective glasses, earplugs, and protective clothing are required in most production areas.
Cases of occupational injury and illness in the industry were 9.6 per 100 full-time workers in 1999, higher than the 6.3 cases per 100 workers for the entire private sector and slightly higher than the 9.2 cases per 100 for all manufacturing.
While the primary-metal industry ranked higher than the transportation equipment industry in the 2002 statistics, this was not the case in 1999. In that year, cases of work-related injury and illness averaged 16.8 per 100 full-time workers in motor vehicle and equipment manufacturing, compared with 9.6 percent in steel mills, 9.2 percent in all manufacturing industries, and 6.3 in the entire private sector.
Working conditions, outlined in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, contributed to the high incidence rate:
In 2000, 38 percent of motor vehicle and equipment manufacturing workers worked, on average, more than 40 hours per week. Overtime is especially common during periods of peak demand.
Although working conditions have improved in recent years, some production workers are still subject to uncomfortable conditions. Heat, fumes, noise, and repetition are not uncommon in this industry. In addition, many workers come into contact with oil and grease and may have to lift and fit heavy objects. Employees also may operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous. Accidents and injuries usually are avoided when protective equipment and clothing are worn and safety practices are observed.
Newer plants are more automated and have safer, more comfortable conditions. For example, these plants may have ergonomically designed work areas and job tasks that accommodate the worker's physical size and eliminate awkward reaching and bending and unnecessary heavy lifting. Workers may function as part of a team, doing more than one job, and thus reducing the repetitiveness of assembly line work.
As in other industries, professional and managerial workers normally have clean, comfortable offices and are not subject to the hazards of assembly line work. Improved ergonomics help clerical support workers avoid repetitive-strain injuries, but employees using computer terminals for long periods may develop eyestrain and fatigue.
The working conditions for metal fabricators, the third-highest at-risk group in the 2002 report, vary from plant to plant. Plants can be noisy. Many workers may have to sit or stand for long periods. Welding fumes and sparks, metalworking lubricants, and other potentially hazardous materials contribute to worker injury and illness.
Protective equipment must be provided and used judiciously to avoid injury and illness. And plants should have adequate ventilation systems to protect workers.
Workers also may have to lift and fit heavy objects. In many cases, developments in ergonomics have improved working conditions through changes in workstation design and the increased use of robots or other pneumatically powered machinery to lift heavy objects.
The Occupational Outlook Handbookdoes not contain injury and illness numbers for the fabricated metals industry, nor does it contain numbers for industrial machinery and equipment manufacturing, an industry in which working conditions mirror those of metal fabrication.
Although working conditions may have improved in many occupations over the years, you can never be too safe, particularly if you are employed in one of these higher-risk occupations. You need to be ever vigilant and diligent when it comes to making sure that you and your co-workers follow safety procedures. Take all possible steps to prevent injury and illness. Follow safe practices and operate machinery only when all safeguards are functioning and when you are alert. It takes only a second of inattention to receive a potentially serious injury. And working on malfunctioning equipment is asking for trouble.
Report malfunctioning equipment immediately. If you are in charge of maintaining equipment, follow the proper procedures and document the maintenance.
Employers, make sure that workers comply with safe work practices and wear proper protective equipment. Post operating instructions and warnings as mandated by OSHA. Make sure that all employees receive the proper training for operating equipment and for handling work-related tasks safely.
Have the air quality and noise levels in your operations checked periodically, and take steps to improve both if necessary. Follow all guidelines for handling industrial lubricants and solvents.
Set up a safety committee that includes members of your work force. Encourage workers to come to you with their safety and health concerns. Don't allow workers to adopt a "Why should I report this, they won't do anything and I may lose my job" attitude. Make safety and good health practices ongoing priorities, and make sure your employees perceive them as such.
With the vast amount of information available from safety and health organizations, Web sites, and industrial equipment vendors, there's no excuse for running an unsafe operation.