Workplace deaths are often called accidents, but they are rarely “accidental” – a matter of chance or bad luck. For the most part, they can be traced back to a series of decisions, large and small, made by employers and managers: Perhaps cut a corner to meet a deadline or save a few dollars, dismiss an inconvenient concern from a worker, or disconnect a protective mechanism to keep production moving.
In the recently released film “Deepwater Horizon,” we see a clear example of how poor choices by an employer can lead to tragedy. The 2010 explosion of that oil rig off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 workers and injured 17. Families were forever altered. For some, the pain will never go away. Absent the heroism of the rig’s workers, the toll could have been far greater.
It became clear in the aftermath that no minor financial savings could have justified decisions made by the company. The explosion and subsequent oil spill have already cost BP over $60 billion.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which I lead, did not investigate the catastrophe on the Deepwater Horizon because the rig, 40 miles off shore, was beyond OSHA’s jurisdiction. But the story line is very familiar to us. We see that dynamic in action every single day.
Each year, more than 4,500 workers are killed and more than 3 million are injured in U.S. workplaces, pushing working families out of the middle class. They are seldom memorialized in movies: only their families, co-workers and OSHA demanding to know what happened. Why did someone’s husband or mother or sister or son die, or lose a limb, from something that could so easily have been prevented?
Under federal law, employers are responsible for safety of their workers. We tell employers to listen to concerns from workers, who often know more about what’s really going on than any manager. And employers need to ensure that workers can stop a dangerous job without fear of retaliation. Only by working together can employers and workers make sure a job is safe.
To help them, OSHA offers free on-site consultations for small employers, along with many other resources. Saving lives and limbs isn’t difficult or complicated, but takes employer commitment: There are commonsense ways to protect workers from ghastly injuries or death. It may simply be a matter of providing fall protection, or installing a guard to keep hands out of machines.
This is an epidemic that gets too little attention. We know how to keep workers safe in every occupation, no matter how potentially hazardous. It’s simply a matter of making the right decisions, every time. Workers should never have to accept risks to their safety or health as a condition of the job.
Smart, responsible employers have figured this out. They recognize safety is an investment, not a cost. At firms with safety in their DNA, everyone knows, from the front office to the floor supervisor, that shortcuts are unacceptable. Workers’ concerns are always worth checking out and close calls are always investigated. Rather than look the other way, they look for problems and fix them immediately.
The bottom line is that safety improves the bottom line. Safety protects not just lives but jobs, too. Listen to managers at the last board game manufacturing plant in the U.S., who would have moved production to China but kept the jobs in Massachusetts because their safety management program increased productivity and profitability.
Learning from some of the nation’s most successful firm, OSHA has just issued new Guidelines for Safety and Health Programs to help small and medium -sized employers who want to protect their workers and integrate safety into operations.
Like almost all workplace disasters, the Deepwater Horizon explosion was not accidental ― it was predictable and preventable. Making safety a precondition for production ― not simply one of several competing priorities ― saves lives and improves profitability. That is a message we hope audiences around the world will take away from this movie.