Social media manipulation of OHS statistics
Posted on February 4, 2013
Recently SafetyatWorkBlog criticised the focus on fatality statistics as a measure of success. Workplace fatalities are a convenient measure but can seriously misrepresent the status of workplace safety by ignoring psychosocial hazards and occupational illnesses. An infographic came through the SafetyAtWorkBlog inbox this weekend which illustrates the unhelpful obsession with fatalities but, perhaps more importantly, the risks of social media.
This infographic from US firm Compliance and Safety (purposely unlinked) is slickly produced for social media and blogs but is fundamentally invalid. The title at the top is a ridiculous comparison. “Is OSHA a wasteful regulatory nightmare or common sense that saves lives?” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may be wasteful but how can this be compared to the amorphous and self-serving concept of “common-sense”? The implication is that common sense equates to a free-market regulation of workplace safety. The failure of the free-market approach to occupational safety, and to the environment, many decades ago is exactly the reason why regulations were introduced. There were too many businesses exploiting workers and the environment by creating harm without accountability.
The US EPA’s 40th anniversary site clearly indicates the disregard of the environment shown in the 1960s and 1970s. The 30th anniversary report of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, and its history timeline, outlines the societal and political pressures since its origins in 1880. Even though the Secretary of the Department of Labor, Hilda Solis also measures achievement by fatality rates, OSHA’s progress over 40 years should be acknowledged. In 2011 Solis said:
“Since OSHA’s creation, workplace deaths are down 65 percent. Job-related injuries are down 67 percent. … Before OSHA, 38 workers lost their lives every day on the job. Today, that number is down to 12.”
The infographic compares the fatality rate in the United States with the budget allocated to OSHA. This is grossly unfair as over the last few decades there has been an increase in non-fatal musculoskeletal disorders, one of the most difficult workplace hazards to control and one of the most expensive areas of workers’ compensation. Similarly, stress, bullying and other psychosocial issues have only been accepted as legitimate workplace illnesses and work-related costs in the last few decades. This infographic misses everything but fatalities.
The infographic also provides a comparison of workplace fatalities to other countries. It is unclear how this relates to the question in the title and it is of little practical benefit. So what if the US has more fatalities than Spain? It is not a competition and the US has a unique OHS legislative structure, health care system and social demographic which requires much more analysis than “we kill more of our workers than you do”.
It is also useful to note the statistical measurement used in this graphic – “Workplace deaths per 100,000 workers” – is becoming outdated. Many companies, and increasingly regulators, consider injuries or fatalities per million hours worked as a more useful measure. The million hours worked measure seems to remove some of the economic variability by depersonalising to work activity and risk exposure instead of employment figures.
The International Labour Organization in 2008 released its “manual on methods” for “Occupational injuries statistics from household surveys and establishment surveys” which says the million hours measure is:
“…probably the most useful rate to calculate, because the hours worked represent a direct measure of the degree of exposure of the workers to the risk of injury.” (page 60)
how would the data in the infographic look if the million hours worked measure was used?
The graph relating to OSHA penalties and the unemployment rate is also nonsensical. Consider this perspective on a recent $US1 million fine against Chevron written by Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The $1 million fine proposed by Cal/OSHA against Chevron is an insufficient penalty for the damage caused by a fire that broke out at the oil giant’s Richmond refinery last August. …… Because a $1 million fine to a company that earns that much in global revenue every two minutes isn’t much of a deterrent. It’s like asking for the loose change in their pocket.”
Johnson argues that OHS fines against major corporations should be considerably more thereby reducing some of the “wastefulness” mention in the infographics title.
Fundamentally, though, the graphic reflects a major misunderstanding of workplace safety in the United States (or at least of the graphic’s authors), a misunderstanding that is becoming more common as the anti-regulation free marketers increase their government influence. The obligation for keeping workers safe is NOT on the safety regulator but on the employer. The fatality, injury and illness rates included in the infographic do not reflect on the regulators but on the employers and the corporations. The role of OSHA and other safety regulators is to provide guidance and information to business and workers so that there is a better understanding by employers of the risks associated with whatever work or production task is being undertaken. Regulators also have an enforcement role but enforcement should only be required when the employers and corporations are doing the wrong thing, are treating workers with disrespect, are placing them at risk of injury. If companies manage safety to the level that they know they should, the need for enforcement and inspection by regulators is reduced.
Compliance and Safety’s infographic has been circulated far and wide through the internet. Activistpost has used the infographic to discuss the performance of OSHA, a federal agency that has been a regular target for poor performance and wastefulness even though its budget has been severely limited for years and it has not been given the level of political support required to function effectively, particularly, it seems, during Republican presidencies. Activistpost does analyse the data on the infographic and finds it deficient in many many areas, as I have, but Activistpost thought there was enough data to support its criticisms of OSHA. I don’t agree.
But the purpose of this infographic has not been to shed light on the operations of OSHA or to prick the consciences of workers and employers over poor safety. It is only intended to direct traffic to the website of Compliance and Safety as part of that company’s branding strategy. This is a social media fishing exercise by a US company that sells safety videos and ergonomic material handling equipment.
The infographic is slick, manipulative and invalid, and I thought long and hard about even mentioning this infographic in SafetyAtWorkBlog. That is the challenge – analysis of the infographic achieves the aims of the company distributing it just as much as if it was uncritically reproduced. Who would have thought that Oscar Wilde would have been one of the earliest social media philosophers when he wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
“…there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”