Monday, January 12, 2015

Auto Death Decline - Vindicated Results of a Team Approach

I think a great deal about workplace safety. Reducing the occurrence of accidents and illness is a great goal. We are engaged in a vast industry tasked with dealing with the results of workplace injury and illness. Certainly, we see tie-ins with the safety industry, but it is not always intertwined with workers' compensation. 

The employee/employer relationship in this country is complex, and perhaps increasingly so. Most companies have a human resources (HR) department or at least a department of some name that deals with the various employment regulatory issues. Some integrate responsibility for workers' compensation within the same department, but it is sometimes housed instead in the risk management department. Likewise, safety concerns are sometimes within the same department as risk, sometimes HR, and sometimes safety is yet another department in itself.

I have discussed this with various professionals in workers' compensation. Some lament the lack of connection in their company, between workers' compensation, safety, and other employment issues. One explained to me recently that her department (comp) paid the bills, but had no say in preventing accidents. Her department was not even invited to periodic safety meetings. Similarly, all return-to-work accommodation decisions were made by the HR department instead of comp. Her job was essentially limited to paying the bills for events she could not try to prevent before or mitigate after. 

I recently ran across an insurance promotional page (cited below) touting America's success in decreasing automobile fatalities. It explains that the key to that success was that "researchers pinpointed countless problems and then engineers, policymakers and advocates tackled them one by one." 

There have been great strides in reducing American automobile fatalities. The American population is increasing. More people are driving more miles, and yet the volume of traffic fatalities is decreasing. This seems counter-intuitive perhaps. As the volume of drivers and the number of miles driven increases, one might expect more accidents and as a result more fatalities. However, the data does not bear that out. 

According to Auto Safety: The Road Behind – And Ahead, "as a percentage of the U.S. population, traffic fatalities were more than twice as high in the 1960s than today." Automobile fatalities peaked in 1972, when there were 54,000 traffic fatalities in America. By 2012, that had decreased to only 34,000. By comparison, a great improvement. However, 34,000 is still a great many people losing life in an automobile each year. 

Today it is easy to forget how far cars have come. Airbags are now ubiquitous (car makers brag about how many bags their model has compared to others), but they have been available for only about 40 years. According to Consumer Affairs, the first airbag was offered by Oldsmobile in 1974. According to The Hotly Contested History of the Seat Belt, Seat belts were only mandatory standard equipment in 1970. By 1989, only 34 states had mandated seat belt use. According to the Governor's Highway Safety Association, forty-nine states now have some seat belt mandate for adult vehicle passengers. New Hampshire does not. Seat belts and airbags have been an evolution, not a revolution. 

The Washington Post had an interesting piece in 2013 on traffic fatalities around the world. Using information from the World Health Organization and others, it describes where auto accident deaths are most prominent and offers some analysis as to why. 

Auto Safety: The Road Behind – And Ahead documents the marked reduction in vehicle fatalities from 54,000 in 1972 to 34,000 in 2012. Almost a 40% reduction in 40 years. The decrease in raw volume is significant. However, the report points out that the volume of miles driven in America has increased. The volume of vehicle fatalities per "million vehicle miles traveled," or million "VMT" is 1.1. This is a marked reduction "from the 7.2 rate of 1950 – and a fraction of the 1921 rate of 24.1 deaths per million VMT." 

I struggle with not sounding like my grandfather ("I remember when") . However, I clearly remember vehicles without seat belts. I remember the first air bags, with their $250.00 price tag. While that does not sound like much, if this were an option price today, adjusted for inflation, it would be about $1,200.00 (that is for one airbag, for the driver). Few bought them as an option. I remember a car dealer telling me that the option would never sell.

A cartoon in the 1980s (as a side note for the non-boomers, Americans used to read daily news delivered or purchased, on dried wood-pulp called a "newspaper," and it generally included a section of drawings with captions intended to be funny) made sport of one gentleman's decision to purchase the driver's side airbag "for safety" and whether that demonstrated the appropriate concern for his passenger (his date). When we are concerned about safety, whose safety do we focus upon? For those interested in learning more about the "newspaper," there is a video on YouTube.

According to Auto Safety: The Road Behind – And Ahead the reduction in vehicle fatalities in this country resulted from efforts of researchers, engineers and policymakers. No one group or profession can lay claim to the improvements. In the end, it was a team effort that led to recognizing and dealing with the problem(s).

Perhaps such a team effort is easier when safety, HR and workers' compensation are under the same supervision at a company. But a team effort is likely possible even when these three are under distinct leadership. The key, essentially, is that all of these functions may play a role in an effective approach to preventing injuries in the workplace, providing timely and effective care for injuries and illnesses that do occur, coordinating the interaction of workers' compensation and other employee benefits, and ultimately returning the employee to full gainful employment. 

These are the goals of workers' compensation. Of them, the most important is undoubtedly accident and illness prevention. The best outcome is that we are not hurt to begin with. But, accidents are going to happen. Successful recovery from and mitigation of the effects of those accidents/illnesses that do occur will involve teamwork. In the end, the more coordinated and effective all of these functions are, the more effectively injured workers' can be returned rapidly to their role as a productive member of the employer's team.

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