Work is a dangerous place — even for a nurse in a small doctor's office on Manhattan's tony upper east side, where yesterday a four-story building came crashing down after an apparent gas explosion.
As of this writing, 14 people were injured, including the doctor who owned the building that also housed his practice and is now under investigation for causing the blast. (The nurse was unscathed — she was running late.)
In 2004 (the latest available figures), non-government employers reported 4.3 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses (skin disorders, respiratory conditions, poisoning and hearing loss), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of these, almost 1.3 million injuries required a worker to miss at least one day of work. Good news is, workplace injuries have been declining for at least a decade, and the safety cops at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration expect the trend to continue.
Running into or getting whacked by an object is the most common threat. Then you have your litany of slips, trips and falls, followed by transportation accidents, exposure to harmful substances and repetitive motion injuries. (Fun fact: You are close to five times more likely to be injured by a violent attack by another person than by a fire or explosion.) Just about every body part is at risk, backs especially; for whatever reason, toes enjoy the most protection.
The most frequent injuries are sprains and strains, followed by bruises and contusions, cuts and lacerations and fractures. (Amputations, most prevalent in manufacturing jobs, account for just 0.6 percent of all injuries.)
Oddly enough, a seemingly low-impact injury like carpal tunnel syndrome, while not nearly as commonly reported as sprains and strains, sidelines workers for a median of 28 days (a tie with fractures. See box).
What can be done? With around 1050 inspectors for approximately seven million workplaces, OSHA can't inspect every site. Director of Enforcement Richard Fairfax says the agency tries to direct resources to the places with the highest incident rates.
OSHA issues fines of up to $70,000 for each repeat or willful workplace safety violation, and has slapped companies such as BP, Samsung and US Steel with multimillion dollar fines. In 2005, the agency levied its largest penalty ever, spanking BP for $21 million after an explosion at its Texas City, Texas refinery killed 15.
The problem is that workplace injuries are not confined to manufacturing plants and construction sites. According to the BLS, service industries employed 79 percent of non-government workers and accounted for 68 percent of the most severe injuries and illnesses overall.
Those statistics don't sit right with Bill Borwegen, occupational health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest labor union, who says that 85 percent of OSHA's inspections are geared toward construction and manufacturing. Borwegen also points out that, while the number of injuries has declined, in 2004 the fatality rate ticked up for the first time in a decade, to 4.1 per 100,000 workers.
Injuries of any sort can put a dent in productivity, a big reason why employers are paying more attention to injury prevention, says Kim Lopez, chief executive officer of Sausalito, Calif.-based Remedy Interactive. Remedy provides software and consulting services that help large companies such as Chevron, Hewlett-Packard and Northrop Grumman track injury data and pinpoint accident-prone areas throughout their operations.
"The fact is, worker-injury costs are preventable," she says.
So long as a gas pipe doesn't explode.