In This Chapter

Chapter 9.
Occupational Safety and Health Statistics

Data on safety and health conditions for workers on the job have been produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) since before World War I. The first report issued by BLS summarized industrial accidents in the iron and steel industries during the war period, presenting information on the frequency and severity of injuries, the occupation of the injured workers, and the nature of their injuries.1 Work-related illnesses also were the subject of BLS studies conducted in the early 1900s, such as the pioneering research on lead poisoning in the workplace by Dr. Alice Hamilton.2

It was not, however, until the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 that the Bureau was delegated responsibility for developing a comprehensive statistical system covering work-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses in private industry. In 1972, the Bureau, in cooperation with many State governments, designed an annual survey to estimate the number and frequency of work-related injuries and illnesses by detailed industry for the Nation and for States participating in the survey. This survey information continues to be of value to the safety community in allocating prevention resources among several hundred industries, across which workers' risks of injury and illness vary widely.

As originally designed, however, the survey had its shortcomings. Although it pinpointed dangerous work settings, the survey shed little light on the injury or illness characteristics of the incidents, for example, the manner in which they occurred and what occupations were involved.3 The survey also failed to produce a comprehensive count of workers dying on the job or profiles depicting the victims' demographics and the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

In 1987, a National Academy of Sciences study recommended that these deficiencies be corrected by collecting detailed data on severe, nonfatal occupational injuries reported in the survey and by compiling complete rosters of occupational fatalities from administrative records, such as death certificates and workers' compensation reports.4 This critical review of the survey, which spotlighted longstanding deficiencies, provided the impetus for its redesign.

With congressional funding, technical support from the safety and health community, and assistance from some 40 participating States, the Bureau began a multi-year effort to redesign and test an improved safety and health statistical system, which was fully implemented in 1992. Beginning with that year, survey information on nonfatal incidents involving days away from work has been expanded to profile (1) the occupation and other demographics (age and gender, for example) of workers sustaining such injuries and illnesses, (2) the nature of these disabling conditions and how they occurred, and (3) the resulting time away from work. In addition, work-related fatalities are counted and profiled more accurately in a separate national BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. In 1995, the latest year for which data are available, the survey profiled about 3 million disabling incidents involving lost worktime in the private sector and the BLS census reported on about 6,200 fatal work injuries in the private and public sectors.

1The Safety Movement in the Iron and Steel Industry, Bulletin 234 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1918).
2The White-Lead Industry in the United States, Bulletin 95 (Bureau of Labor, 1911). 3Between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, a limited amount of data on worker and case characteristics was aggregated for selected States participating in the Supplementary Data System and Work Injury Reports. For a description of those programs, see BLS Handbook of Methods, Bulletin 2414 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1992), chapter 14.
4See E.S. Pollack and D.F. Keimig, eds., Counting Injuries and Illnesses in the Workplace: Proposals for a Better System (Washington, National Research Council, National Academy Press, 1987), pp. 103-06.

Next: Part 1: Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses