Labor in America, Part 1: A Look at Worker Safety

The Dept. of Labor has made huge strides, but through analytics they could do even better.

Dept of Labor

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Another Labor Day has come and gone, signifying the unofficial end of summer. Across America, barbecues sizzled, beers were cracked and flags flew high.

But when my British boss asked me what the holiday was all about, I realized I didn’t have a great answer. “It celebrates American laborers”, I responded. Well, duh. It’s an American holiday called Labor Day. Any English speaker could’ve decoded that one.

What I’d forgotten in the many years since Mrs. Constantinides’ 10th grade American History class is that the holiday originated in the late 19th century in New York City, when the Central Labor Union planned a “workingmen’s holiday”. As the labor movement grew, so too did the popularity of the holiday, and by the turn of the century Congress declared it a national holiday.

Two decades later, the Department of Labor (DOL) was established to improve the safety, wellbeing, and profitability of working people. How far have we come since then? I decided to take a quick look at the data to find out.

Improving Worker Safety

When the first edition of the Monthly Labor Review was published in 1915, the number of work-related deaths was 61 per 100,000 workers. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) sites that same statistic at 3.3 per 100,000 workers.

We’ve come a long way from the days of The Jungle, when Upton Sinclair famously shocked the nation by exposing the horrific conditions of the meatpacking industry. Yet despite the exponential improvement, we still have on average 13 work-related deaths per day, which is pretty alarming.

DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made significant strides in improving workplace safety. Since its founding in 1970, both work-related deaths and injuries are down more than 300%.

But with a limited budget, OSHA has to make tough calls on which facilities to inspect, and relies heavily on whistleblowers to identify unsafe workplace practices. Recent audits by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) have found that OSHA “did not always effectively target and inspect the highest risk industries and worksites” due to lack of information.

Yet the data’s there. By visualizing the mountains of retrospective data collected by BLS, OSHA could identify and target those employers and sites with a disproportionate percentage of accidents.

Take a look at this chart, created by the National Health Service to examine patient falls across all nursing homes in the United Kingdom. The blue bar indicates the percentage of total patients in that facility who’ve fallen (institution names removed to protect the guilty); the red dot shows the total number of patients who’ve fallen.

 UK Patient Safety

In the two nursing homes on the far left, nearly half of all patients have fallen, while in the two facilities on the right, only 5% of patients have fallen. However, that 5% represents a much larger number of overall patient falls—770 and 682 , compared with 20 and 109 for those on the left.

By visualizing the data in this way, OSHA can determine at-a-glance where to target their inspections. Not only does this information enable DOL to efficiently allocate its limited resources, but also it ultimately empowers the agency to better meet its mission: to create safer, healthier working conditions for millions of Americans.

Image by Ed Brown (Ed Brown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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