By Justin O’Sullivan
Achieving a zero accident workplace is something of a valency issue. No mainstream politician is ever going to argue for more accidents or fatalities at work, and so campaigning for zero accidents is something that everyone can agree with. However, whenever a public figure says that they want to promote a zero accident workplace, two questions need to be considered: One, what are they doing to achieve this? Two, is a zero accident workplace possible?
To answer the second question is yes. A zero accident workplace is possible. Saying that accidents are an inevitable part of labor is like saying that a particular disease is an inevitable part of living in a particular country. The latter is not true and neither is the former. To take one example, the WHO European Region has gone from over 90,000 cases over malaria in 1955 to just two in 2015, both of which were in Tajikistan. This means that almost all of the other countries in the WHO European Region are certified malaria free.
You may be reading this completely unaware of the fact that Europe, or anywhere close to it, ever had a malaria problem. That unawareness speaks volumes for the strides made in those European countries with zero cases of malaria. The future we should be looking towards is one that views accidents and deaths at work the same way that we now look at cases of malaria in Europe. That is to say, we should aim towards a future where accidents at work are seen as completely bizarre and borderline impossible.
It is worth mentioning at this point that the European Union’s definition of the “Zero Accident Vision” is as “more a way of thinking rather than a numerical goal”. In other words, not everybody thinks that “zero accidents” means zero accidents. For some, “zero accidents” is a way of thinking rather than a literal number. These people may argue that, while we should be aiming to have as few accidents as possible, we shouldn’t seriously imagine that we will ever live in a country where there are zero workplace accidents. Some, on the other hand, do take the goal literally: if we can rid the world of smallpox deaths, why can’t we rid the world of workplace deaths? So, while it is true that everybody would like to see a zero accident workplace, not everybody is agreed on “zero accident” actually means.
According to the US Government’s own statistics, there are twelve deaths a day from workplace injuries. They stress that this figure has fallen as a result of OSHA, but concede that “there is still much work to be done”. Precisely how much work and exactly when it will be done are two very reasonable questions that are not asked enough.
What OSHA may or may not be aware of is that a zero accident workplace may be right around the corner. With more machines entering the workforce, we will see human casualties plummet as robots do the dangerous work. The upside is that this could create a zero accident workplace. The downside is that, with machines doing so much work, humans will need to radically rethink their role in the workplace. If they don’t, they will be unemployed and, without the right skills, unemployable. To a certain degree, this has happened before. There are many jobs where machines have replaced humans because those jobs were far too dangerous for humans to be doing. To give an obvious example, you don’t see any work-related deaths from humans physically dragging heavy stones for hundreds of miles. This is because we have cars and trucks for that work.
Yet, as vlogger CGP Grey points out, what is different this time is that the scale of potential for robots replacing human work is much higher and, because of this, humans need to be much more innovative about what they want to do. At the recent SEMA Safety Conference in the UK, Steve Cowen envisioned a future where pallet racking inspections could be carried out by drones. This would give racking inspectors more time to write reports and less time in potentially dangerous situations, such as inspecting racking that is close to breaking point.
This is just but one example, in one industry, of how a zero accident workplace could be achieved. As machines become more able to do dangerous work, we should be embracing this as an opportunity to train our human labor force to be able to do safer work. The rapid development of technology and the potential for job losses as machines take unsafe work away from human labor is the stick. The carrot is the fact that this will free humans up to be able to do more technical, and safer, jobs in the future. The zero accident workplace could well be a future where human workers are put in no danger whatsoever.
About the author Justin O’Sullivan is a writer and the owner of Storage Equipment Experts. His business specialises in delivering SEMA approved pallet racking inspections and racking inspection courses in every part of the UK.