Risk of Workplace Injury and Death: An International Perspective

Dangerous JobOut of 2 billion workers worldwide, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that over 317 million injuries occur each year that require more than four days absence. Moreover, 320,000 people are killed at work each year, although a mere 22,000 of these deaths are reported to the ILO through official channels.  This makes the risk of worker death about 160 micromorts per year per worker, on average. The micromort – a common statisticians’ tool – is defined as a one-in-a-million chance of sudden death.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that these figures are averages. They include huge armies of workers stuck at computers all day, which – despite causing stress, repetitive strain and back injury – is not a job that usually kill workers right on the spot.

Some occupations, however, are a different matter.

Apart from highly specialized jobs like as providing security in violent and unstable regions of the world, the highest-risk occupation in Britain today is commercial fishing. In the UK, a recent study showed that 160 deaths occurred in commercial fishing between 1996 to 2005, which comes out to 1,020 micromorts per year per fisherman. This is shockingly high – about the same level of risk facing British coal-miners in 1900. Commercial fishing is also the most deadly job in the US, with a risk of 1,160 micromorts per worker in 2010. Somewhat surprisingly, work as a police officer was only the 10th most dangerous job in the US, at 180 micromorts a year.

All of this raised the question of how risky a job has to be before an organization like L&I or OSHA decides that something must be done? In the UK, the philosophy of the Health & Safety Executive (or HSE) is based on something known as the Tolerability of Risk framework, which can be conveniently related to micromorts.

Potential hazards are generally regarded as existing along a spectrum of increasing risk, which divides into three loosely defined regions. Topping the chart are “Unacceptable” risks – meaning that something must be done immediately to protect the workers, the public, or both. At the bottom of the list are “broadly acceptable” risks, which are not quite zero but are considered insignificant by workplace regulators – the kind of thing we’d consider to be normal in our own daily lives.

In between the two extremes lie the “tolerable” risks – things we may be prepared to put up with if they yield sufficient benefit, such as providing valuable employment, personal convenience, or maintaining the infrastructure of society. The logic, in other words, is that somebody must do the dirty work.

Acceptable or not?

Yet how do regulators decide what is unacceptable, broadly acceptable, or tolerable? This is impossible to translate into numbers, yet again we can look to the methods of HSE because they’ve devised some general rules-of-thumb.

First, they claim that an occupational hazard might be considered “unacceptable” if the chance of worker death is greater than one in 1,000 per year. This equates to 1,000 micromorts per year, around the level for commercial fishing. “Exceptional groups” are excluded from that metric: serving in a war-zone certainly counts as exceptional, and the average risk faced by 10,000 servicemen and women in Afghanistan reached 33 micromorts a day, or around 10,000 a year.

For members of the public (rather than employed workers), the HSE considers a one in 10,000 a year risk – which is 100 micromorts a year – as being unacceptable. At the other extreme, risks are considered broadly acceptable if they are less than one in a million per year – or 1 micromort. As it happens, this is about equivalent to the estimated risk of being killed by an asteroid.

Disaster zone

But if applied to the entire English population, even such a minimal risk would mean nearly 50 fatalities a year. This raises some interesting questions: what would happen if all of these deaths occurred once, or affected vulnerable groups like young children, or imposed risks on certain people just because of where they live?

In these circumstances, “social concerns” can trump these cold “micromort calculations.” And again, the HSE has created some rough guidelines that reflect these concerns: for any potential hazard, the risk of an accident involving 50 deaths must be less than 1 in 5,000 each year. Imagine we built a dam that, if it burst, would kill 50 people. In this case it must be designed so that this could be expected to happen only once every 5,000 years.  That’s a fairly rigorous criterion. If 10,000 people lived below the dam, this would be less than 1 micromort a year.

From the individual perspective this might be considered “acceptable”.  But since our society does not like disasters, the immense resources expended on them make tiny risks even smaller.

The L&I Attorneys at Emery Reddy represent workers who have suffered problems such as back injuries, neck injuries, work-related hearing loss, repetitive stress injuries, construction site injuries and occupational illness. If you need help with your L&I Claim for any type of workers’ compensation injury, contact a Seattle work injury lawyer today.

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