Is OSHA out to get you? Maybe - and perhaps with good reason

OSHA always makes business's short list of least loved bureaucracies. The federal agency or its state counterpart has probably paid your facility a visit, and possibly written you up for breaking a recordkeeping requirement or other safety rule you didn't even know existed.

But OSHA's actions aren't always "arbitrary and capricious," as litigators like to charge. Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the 1999 census of fatal occupational statistics, a detailed breakdown of workplace deaths. It makes for grim reading.

Truck drivers suffered a whopping 15% of all on-the-job deaths, the highest total for any single occupation, even though truckers account for only about 2% of the work force. Some 70% of the 898 truckers who lost their lives on the job were killed in highway crashes. The death toll from all causes for truck drivers was the highest since the survey began in 1992.

Other trucking-related occupations also recorded high fatality totals. Mechanics had "a noticeable increase" over 1998, and "material moving equipment operators" such as forklift drivers had a disproportionate share of fatalities. "Handlers, equipment cleaners, helpers, and laborers," some of whom work in trucking, also were overrepresented in the death notices.

As an industry, trucking and warehousing accounted for 10% of the deaths despite having 2% of the employees. (Deaths among truck drivers exceeded total trucking and warehousing deaths because drivers who worked for nontrucking companies were included with their employer's primary industry.) Moreover, the industry's 1999 fatality total (605 deaths) was up sharply from 1998 (564) and from the 1994-98 average (528).

The high ratio of deaths to workers for trucking occupations, combined with the unfortunate upward trend in that ratio while the rest of the work force became safer, is sure to draw the attention of both federal and state safety agencies. Insurance carriers that write workers' compensation and life insurance policies will also take notice.

There are no easy answers. Unlike workers who remain in one place or who operate a single type of machinery, trucking deaths come from many sources. The government may use the data to justify hours-of-service rules and equipment changes. OSHA may require more training for dockworkers and better protection from slips and falls. But drivers are also on the job when they walk across a parking lot or make a delivery.

The demographics of occupational deaths fit trucking all too well: 93% of the deceased are men and 19% are self-employed. Thus, trucking fleets are prone to hiring high-risk categories of workers.

The bottom line: Nobody wants to have an on-the-job fatality, and the cost is high in terms of morale, productivity and corporate image. Yet trucking as an industry and as a set of occupations has too many on-the-job deaths. Regulators and insurers are bound to react by imposing still higher costs on all firms using trucks, and especially on those with a pattern of fatalities. That makes it imperative that you take a close look at every possible contributing factor, from the profile of workers you recruit to how you train, equip and rest them.

If you don't want OSHA to bash you, be your own toughest safety inspector. Work with OSHA and your workers' comp insurer to identify risky practices and ways to minimize them.