On June 6, 51-year-old welder Quoc Le died at a railcar assembly plant in Hamilton, ON, Canada, after a 1-ton bulkhead fell on him. Shockingly, it was the third fatal accident at the factory, which is owned by National Steel Car, in the past 21 months.
Not surprisingly, the United Steelworkers Union (USW), which represents some 1,400 workers at the factory, is none too happy. National Steel Car has “the worst health and safety record of any workplace in Ontario,” writes Myles Sullivan, the union’s Ontario and Atlantic director, in a letter to Monte McNaughton, the minister of labor, training and skills development in Ontario.
“There have been too many similarities concerning these incidents, including the apparent mechanical failure of lifting and hoisting equipment,” continues Sullivan.
Between June 1, 2017, and June 9, 2022, officials from Ontario’s labor ministry visited the plant 221 times, for both proactive inspections and responses to complaints, reportable injuries or illnesses. Some 75 of those visits occurred just in the past year.
On June 9, the USW staged a rally at the factory, causing it to close for two days.
Good for them, I say. Workers have a right to expect that they’ll be able to come home safe at the end of a long, hard day. Fines and law suits are doubtless in the offing, but they’ll be cold comfort to the 17-year-old daughter, 14-year-old son and wife that Le leaves behind.
Ironically, June is National Safety Month here in the United States. Lurid headlines aside, U.S. manufacturers have made great strides in workplace safety.
There were 4,764 fatal work injuries in the United States in 2020. That’s 10.7 percent fewer fatalities than in 2019, and it marks the first time that the number of workplace fatalities has been less than 5,000 since at least 2016. The fatal work injury rate was 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, down from 3.5 per 100,000 FTE in 2019.
Of all the workplace fatalities in 2020, just 8 percent were in manufacturing, which is neither the worst nor the best ratio. The construction and transportation industries accounted for almost half of all workplace fatalities in 2020, while the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry had the worst injury rate, at 21.5 FTE, double that of any other industry.
We’re also doing better on workplace injuries and illnesses. In 2020, employers reported 2.7 million injury and illness cases in private industry, down 5.7 percent from 2019. Injury cases declined to 2.1 million in 2020 from 2.7 million in 2019, while illness cases more than quadrupled to 544,600 cases in 2020. (Thanks, COVID-19!)
Still, one workplace fatality is one too many, and there’s always room for improvement. Looking at the causes of workplace fatalities in 2020, I’m struck by how many are preventable. For example, 15 percent of fatalities were related to workplace violence. (I’m not even going to go there.) “Contact with objects and equipment”—for instance, getting run over by a forklift or getting caught in a running machine—accounted for 15 percent of fatalities. Surely, given today’s sensors and standards, we can do better than that?
Many CEOs boast that their employees are their companies’ most valuable assets. For some, however, it’s lip service. Invest in automation to handle the dirty, dull and dangerous jobs. Invest in safety technology and make sure it’s being used and maintained properly. People are not expendable assets.