What Makes Workplaces Dangerous

“The workplace kills more people than die on the roads.” That is the bold heading on a poster distributed by WorkCover, a safety organization in New South Wales, Australia.

DEATH-CAUSING accidents, of course, are only part of the problem. Millions annually suffer serious, even life-altering, injuries at their places of employment. Many others die prematurely because of on-the-job exposure to dangerous substances or as a result of stress at work.

Since work-related death and serious injury occur in almost all sectors of industry and commerce, it is appropriate to ask: Just how safe are you at your place of employment? What situations there may threaten your health and life?

Pressure-Cooker Environment

Tremendous pressure is often placed on workers to be productive. In Japan the term karoshi—“death from overwork”—was first used in the compensation claims filed by bereaved families. According to a survey there years ago, 40 percent of Japanese office workers feared possible death from overwork. A lawyer specializing in such claims estimated that there were “at least 30,000 victims of karoshi in Japan every year.”

The police in Japan have suggested that work-related problems are a key factor in the increase in suicide among 50- to 59-year-olds. According to the book The Violence-Prone Workplace, one court held an employer liable for the suicide of an employee who was beset with work-related worries.

Australia’s newspaper The Canberra Times said that ‘Americans have overtaken the Japanese in putting in the longest working hours in the world.’ Thus, news stories with headlines such as “Long Hours Are Working People to Death” tell about fatigued workers, such as ambulance drivers, pilots, construction and transport workers, and those working night shifts, being killed on the job.

As companies go through the process of restructuring and downsizing to remain financially profitable, greater pressure to produce is placed on employees. The British Medical Journal reported that downsizing has a negative effect on the health of employees.

Violence in Workplaces

Overworked and stressed employees are not just a risk to themselves. A British survey  found that many office workers spend much of their working day in a state of irritation with colleagues and that such conflict often triggers violent reactions.

“About 15 American workers are murdered on the job each week,” states Business Week magazine. Harvard Business Review comments: “Workplace violence is no manager’s favorite subject. But the fact remains that every year hundreds of employees assault or even kill their colleagues.”

On the other hand, many experience workplace violence from their clients or their customers. An Australian criminology report states that some doctors are so fearful of violent assaults that they take an escort on house calls. Others who are at risk include police officers and schoolteachers.

Another form of workplace violence is emotional abuse, which is recognized by the International Labor Organization as psychological violence. A major form of this abuse is bullying.

Professor Robert L. Veninga of the University of Minnesota, U.S.A., reports that “stress and its resulting illnesses impact workers in almost every corner of the world.” He noted that “the central problem according to the 1993 World Labor Report by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, is that stress stems from impersonal, ever-changing, and often hostile workplaces.”

So the question is, What can employers and employees do to make their workplace safer? This will be considered in the next article.