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The Minnesota Safety Council shared a dashboard of statistics on Minnesota workplace safety, and it sure was sobering. In addition to figures on lung disease, amputations and other terrible outcomes of going to work, the charts along the top were simply labeled “Fatal Occupational Injuries.” And as President Paul Aasen explained, there’s both good news and bad news in workplace safety.

Q: Can we start with what the council does?

A: The Minnesota Safety Council works every day to help people be safer at work, safer on the road and safer at home. We were actually founded by an act of the Legislature in 1928, so we are 90 years old. Initially the focus was on traffic safety as the state highway system was built out. But that charter was rapidly expanded into the workplace safety arena, which was also growing at that same time, and then also into general safety.

We have about 1,500 organizations that are members. They generally represent medium to heavy manufacturing, but we also have a fair number of public sector members, local governments and schools, and a range of healthcare members. The membership fee gets you access to a range of information and some services like online training videos. It also gets you access to all of our training and classes at a discounted rate. We’ve got about 25 people in the basement here today finishing their fourth day of OSHA workplace safety training. That would be a very normal thing people come to us for.

Q: What have you noticed in workplace safety trends?

A: There are about, in a given year here in Minnesota, somewhere between 80 and 90 people who are killed on the job. When we started in 1928, there would’ve been 100 people killed on the job. You can say that number isn’t much different, however our workforce is about two times bigger. So that’s good news.

But, every four days someone dies in Minnesota on the job. And obviously that is a problem. Even more than that, the fact that sits in my head is how almost 100 people a day have serious workplace injuries. What that means is, they can’t come back to their job the same way the next day.

Q: So safety data seem to indicate we’re kind of going sideways. If we put rose-colored glasses on, is the workplace getting safer?

A: Yes, in a couple of ways. Even though we focus heavily on fatalities, most illnesses and industries are still sprains and strains. It’s the run-of-the-mill kind of safety issues. As long as you pay attention to base safety standards, you can make a dent in those numbers. So that’s good.

The other thing that is important underneath all this is how people are employed has changed, particularly since the Great Recession. So there are more temporary workers on a site, more contractors, or subs of subs, and that actually raises the bar for that site operator for training obligations. So even though it’s garden-variety worker safety, maintaining that in an ever-changing workforce is a challenge.

Q: I think of workplace safety programs as largely complying with regulations, but I understand employer thinking is evolving on this. How?

A: Inside their own businesses there’s a convergence going on between safety management, human resource management and risk management. As soon as you start to apply the risk management lens, you start to look at preventing costs you can avoid. And that’s where companies are starting to look not only at rote compliance, but what kind of behaviors can they train to avoid other costs, even if they are in formal compliance.

Q: Are there benefits to employers in worker safety programs for recruiting and retention?

A: The workplace culture and the karma of a workplace are definitely heavily influenced by the organization’s interest in the wellness of its employees. That goes to everything from the whole salary negotiation, to whether there’s a break room, to whether the people feel safe and cared for and backed up by management at work. In those workplaces where you see management spending time on safety, you’re also seeing business success.

Cargill was gracious enough at our last annual conference to have its CEO, David MacLennan, come in and talk about their current process, which is literally leading with safety. And they believe not only will that reduce these preventable costs but it also will bring additional benefits into the culture.

Q: What trends or issues are the focus in the next year or so?

A: No. 1 is the what’s-old-is-new bucket. That’s this notion of you’ve got to maintain your base system that prevents those trips and falls, just as much as you have worry about something new and exotic, like silica exposure.

The other thing is how more organizations are doing their risk management and saying, ‘We’ve got a problem with driving.’ If you look at the top three worker activities causing fatal injuries, it’s all related to driving. Of the top eight, four are related to driving. So, driving is part of the workplace, and it includes everything from your sales force to your delivery force, and it’s a big deal in risk.

The organizations that might do fleet management the best are all the big power companies. It’s because they have people out alone with trucks, so that makes sense. But No. 2, if you think about their business models, those investor-owned utilities, their sales price is capped by the public utilities commission process. So they have a higher premium placed on avoided costs. Because of that they have really built out their safety programs to avoid costs, and in that journey they have found driving to be a place to focus their attention.