The 20th century saw a major drop in the number of fatal accidents and injuries in just about every occupation. Part of it, according to the Economic History Association, can be credited to advances that diminished the risks commonly faced from unruly animals, dangerous hand tools and rickety ladders a hundred years ago, as well as a gradual shift in jobs from the relatively dangerous production of goods to comparatively safer ones, like retail sales or office work.
While work-related accidents were much more common pre-20th century, they were also comparatively cheap, at least from the employer’s perspective. An injured worker or their family could sue the employer for damages but winning in court proved very difficult. According to the article cited above, surveys taken around 1900 found that only about half of all workers fatally injured recovered anything at all. When they did, the average compensation amounted to only six-months pay. That’s changed.
According to the National Safety Council, the aggregate cost of work injuries to the U.S. economy in 2020 was $163.9 billion including wage and productivity losses, medical expenses and administrative costs as well as the value of time lost by workers, the cost to investigate injuries and damage to property. On an individual basis, the cost per medically involved injury that same year was $44,000, while the cost per death was $1,310,000.
That sharp upward shift in cost has meant that enhancing worker safety became a significant economic advantage to the employer—potentially saving them tens of thousands of dollars or more per incident. As a result, investing in safety programs and equipment, particularly during the second half of the 20th century and continuing into the present, became industrial priorities.
Those priorities have extended to essentially every occupation—including those in higher-risk industries such as public safety, construction, logging, mining, fishing and farming.
One surprising finding was reported in a 2005 study on the effects of OSHA workplace injury inspections in manufacturing. It found that inspections which resulted in a penalty being levied on the employer reduced lost-workday injuries by about 19% from 1979 to 1985. However, that reduction fell to 11% in 1987 to 1991, and to a statistically insignificant 1% in 1992 to 1998. It was a decline that applied across the board by inspection type, establishment size and industry. And it’s been hard for experts to explain.
Taking a longer view, there were 19,000 workplace fatalities in 1928. By 2020, there were 4,113, including 340 fatal injuries in U.S. manufacturing plants of all kinds—a nearly five-fold decline in spite of the fact that the nation’s population had more than tripled during that time.
One reason for the relative safety of manufacturing is that much of the activity is repetitive. Over the course of developing a systematic body of knowledge about workplace hazards and associated safety products, a series of best practices concerning repetitive operations in potentially hazardous work environments has evolved, and a variety of programs have been created to implement them.
Many of these programs are reactive—equipment and procedures designed to provide some measure of protection in the event of a bad situation. However, one particularly promising development is proactive—the pairing of artificial intelligence with continuous monitoring of industrial work activity.
The AI component is able to analyze video images captured from cameras throughout the factory floor for possible employee lapses from best practices and proactively alert the worker to the hazard they are facing. Examples include things like not wearing the proper personal protective equipment, dangerous vehicle proximity and fall detection.
If manufacturing companies want to limit the safety hazards on the factory floor, they should look at adopting continuous monitoring systems that harness the power of AI to detect and alert you of accidents before they happen.
But adopting these systems isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. These solutions can be transformative but only if executives properly plan and prepare their organizations. Many companies lack experience in implementing organizationwide technology. Selecting the right solution is the first step, but there are risks of falling behind the implementation schedule and coming in over budget. According to McKinsey, only 25% of supply chain leaders reported feeling their objectives are aligned with the incentives of their systems integrators.
Therefore, companies must take a holistic approach to implementation and systems integration. Optimizing operations must also be an ongoing process and not simply occasional if companies want to see more sustainable value over the long term. Finally, adopting these systems requires workers to be trained in handling new ways of operating. According to a survey by O’Reilly, the lack of modern skills in handling the transition to AI-powered systems is the greatest barrier to adoption.
I am convinced this represents an exciting advance in industrial safety. Coupling smart proactive systems with effective reactive ones will help to extend the long curve of workplace safety we have enjoyed for more than a century and take it to even higher levels.