Monday, September 19, 2011

Work Does Not Have to Hurt (Marin IJ)

This Labor Day, as we honor workers, let us also celebrate workplace safety. Well, perhaps workplace safety is not so much something we celebrate, as it is something we should expect. And if you consider where we’ve come from, remarkable progress has truly been made. Over one hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle depicted the truly awful working conditions of the early 20th century Chicago meatpacking industry. For example, consider the job of “beef-boner”…”Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone. Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash. And that would not be so bad, only for the deadly contagion. The cut may heal, but you never can tell.” Grimy and grim. And workplace danger was not restricted to beef boners – in year 1913 alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) documented 23,000 industrial deaths among a workforce of 38 million, equivalent to a rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers. And there were likely thousands more that went un-documented. Even thirty years ago, in the 1980s, after vast improvements in working conditions and safety, over 7000 people a year died on the job.

Last week, the BLS released the data for 2010, reporting 4,547 fatal work injuries, a rate nearly twenty fold improved from 1913. Of the year 2010 deaths, 1,766 were transportation related, 808 from assaults (including self-inflicted), 732 from being struck by an object, 635 from falls, 409 from toxic exposures and 187 from fires and explosions. Occupation-wise, the greatest magnitude of deaths was seen in transportation/material moving (1,115) and construction/mining industries (760). A somewhat surprising third were management occupations (533) – including 29 (no longer) top executives.

So nowadays, as you can see, workplace deaths are rare enough that they are fastidiously tracked – in fact you can find a description of specific events on the OSHA website (this, by the way, is only recommended for Faces of Death aficionados). Cleary, further improvements in work safety are possible but nonetheless, non-fatal injuries on the job are a problem of much greater frequency. According to 2009 BLS data, there were over 3.2 million workplace injuries or illness reported in the private sector alone. These include 195,150 back injuries and 212,760 falls. Ouch. In all, days-away-from-work approached one million in 2009 (this was actually an 11% decrease from 2008). As one might expect, high risk professions include those with significant lifting/physicality requirements – such as patrol officers, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants, delivery truck drivers, construction laborers, and janitors and cleaners.

No profession, however, is immune from on the job injuries. Even pillow softness testers must suffer some risk– although it is not immediately evident to me what this might be. Hazards exist in the offices and hallways around us. To help keep you safe in these environments, I canvassed the web ( and Dr. Scott Levy, Chief of Occupational Medicine at San Rafael Kaiser, for some safety tips.

1) Boot the boxes…
And other clutter out of the hallway and walkways. Tripping over your own box of files would not only be embarrassing, it could also be quite painful.

2) Don’t carry anything higher than your eye level or read while walking.
Can’t see where you are going? Carrying a heavy load? Not noticing Wobbly Wanda and her cup of very hot tea. Ruh-oh.

3) Don’t run unless someone’s life is at stake.
Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, died prematurely because the elevator was broken and he ran seven flights of steps to make a meeting on time. His heart couldn’t take the stress of always being in a rush. Can yours?

4) Look before you sit.
Seems simple, but a chair is not always that clear of a target to hit – especially if you’re distracted. A bruised bum or a bum back could be your penance for poor sitting technique.

5) Think Ergonomically
A properly designed (ergonomic) workstation can help minimize work place injuries. This fact becomes quite obvious when people with very different proportions attempt to use the same workspace.

6) Something’s in the air around here
Besides hazards that lead to musculoskeletal injuries, consider other sources of injury. Strong scented colognes and perfumes can easily aggravate allergies and trigger asthma attacks.

7) Wellness is not for Wussies.
Consider starting or joining a workplace wellness program.  There's a lot of evidence that having a healthier workforce will lead to fewer injuries.

8) Light Matters
Don't overlook the importance and relevance of your office lighting. Traditional fluorescent light bulbs flicker very rapidly and can lead to increased fatigue – not to mention irritability.

9) Control the Urge to Multi-Task
This is a tough one – and I’m as guilty as the next over-stimulated employee. More on this another time, but just know that serious multi-tasking does not help you to be more effective, in fact it can be quite detrimental. You are much more likely to forget something important (such as driving on the right side of the road) if your mind is flipping back and forth between two activities.

In sum, advises Dr. Levy…“Although office injuries will never drop to zero despite our best efforts, there are ways to minimize the numbers.  Developing an ongoing program where office hazards are continually monitored will lead to improved staff morale in addition to the obvious benefit of an overall safer workplace.”

Indeed, work does not have to hurt.