Every industry has been hit hard during the past two years, and every business in the waste industry has been forced to make difficult decisions. Companies tighten costs when revenues shrink. Industrywide, businesses declare revenue shortfalls and then announce cuts in their workforce. As the economy falters, recovers, sputters and unemployment rises, how should this impact worker safety? If companies are looking to cut costs, will they sacrifice safety programs?
Typically, a surging economy creates increased workplace injuries, while a slower economy means fewer accidents. When an economy is running at full strength, employers add workers to get the job done. The new or inexperienced workers are the ones who usually are hurt. However, when the economy falters, layoffs based on seniority enable experienced employees to keep their jobs. This reduces the injury risk among inexperienced workers.
During the economic boom of the '90s, workplace injuries and illnesses declined. In fact, workplace injuries and illnesses have been steadily declining during the past several decades.
Companies have come a long way and recognize the importance and cost benefit of safety. Workplaces are safer, thanks to the efforts of employers, insurance companies, unions and state and federal agencies. Safety professionals keep workers' compensation costs low. Insurance companies proactively keep both their clients and their own costs down. All parties recognize the value and benefits of a safe workplace.
As the economy begins to expand, more employees work overtime. As hours increase, workers become physically and mentally tired, which can cause more errors and injuries.
Hopefully the high cost of an unsafe workplace will insulate safety programs, even during today's economic downturn. Workers compensation costs also may help to inspire employers to continually stress safety. While spending may decrease as corporate revenue declines, day-to-day safety programs should remain intact. Hiring safety professionals and developing programs appear to have large costs, but provide intangible, immeasurable benefits.
Only a long-term recession and doubling unemployment rates should affect safety. Every executive and manager should remember the lessons learned in the early 1990s concerning safety and the economy. When the economy is doing well, new workers are drawn into the workplace and lack the necessary experience or training. Companies should not be shortsighted when pondering training costs or safety programs. Shortsighted gains will be erased by lasting or costly expenses in injuries, downtime and workers' compensation costs.
The insurance industry along with federal and state agencies, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., have been helpful in installing an overall safety mindset. Before underwriting an insurance program, an insurance company will insist that businesses adopt or enact safety programs. Meanwhile, employers have bought into the necessity of effective safety policies.
However, if management views safety as a cost savings, then programs will be created. If safety is viewed as an add-on program, then it will be cut. The current recession will be a good test to see how much employers are committed to safety.
Safety professionals have gained respect since September 11, yet in tight financial times, they also are asked to provide more value to employers.
Additionally, safety professionals have started to see expanded opportunities, especially in government, security and construction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the federal government provides one-half of all safety-related jobs. OSHA has stated it will be adding staff and is looking for certified safety professionals or industry hygienists.
C. Phillip Headley is acting manager of technical programs for the Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC), and develops ANSI safety standards (Z245 series). E-mail the author at: [email protected].