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Why Are US Workplaces So Much More Dangerous Than European Ones?

By | Justin O’Sullivan

On average, the American workplace is more dangerous than the Latvian, Czech, Slovakian, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, or Estonian one. Considering how the United States has a much higher GDP per capita than all of these countries, this seems unlikely. Yet, it’s true. Despite the United States’ immense power on the global stage, its workers are much more likely to die than in economically poorer European countries.

The data speaks for itself. In 1999, a World Health Organisation report revealed that the US had a workplace fatality rate per 100,000 workers of 5.3. In 2014, a report by OSHA revealed that the US had a workplace fatality rate per 100,000 workers of 3.4. This reduction is an improvement, but it’s not cause for celebration when you compare it to the situation in Europe.

In the ex-communist countries of Europe, the workplace fatality rate from 1999 to 2014 has reduced dramatically. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the economic gains these countries have reaped from the fall of communism. However, what is perhaps surprising is how the workplace fatality rates in many of these countries is now about the same or lower — much, much lower in some cases — than it is in the US.

According the a HSE report from 2014 and the WHO report from 1999, Croatia has gone from 11.4 to 0.75, the Czech Republic has gone from 4.3 to 1.5, Estonia has gone from 11.6 to 0.75, Hungary has gone from 11.4 to 1.75, and so on and so forth. At 3.4, the United States workplace fatality rate in 2014 is most similar to Bulgaria, Romania, and Lithuania — three of the poorest economies in Europe.

The safety of the American workplace should be comparable to that of the UK or Sweden, not Bulgaria or Romania, and many Americans are worried the Supreme Court ruling on unions could means that things get even worse.

However, even before this ruling became a contentious issue, the United States’ record on workplace safety wasn’t the best. The truth is that there are many issues in the US affecting its ability to keep workplaces safe. The OSHA budget has been cut, but compared to the UK — whose workplace fatality is nine times lower than the United States’ — the OSHA budget was never high to begin with.

Considering the US population is five times greater than the UK population, you would imagine that the US would spend five times more money on OSHA than the UK does on HSE. However, this is not the case. From 2016 to 2018, OSHA’s budget has hovered around the $550 million dollar mark. For comparison, the HSE budget in the UK has decreased from around £230 million ($326 million) to around £140 million ($198 million).

Despite this decrease, the UK is still spending much more money per capita than the United States is on health and safety. Yet, it’s not just spending. The UK also has many more workplace safety inspectors than the US does.

OSHA has 2,100 safety inspectors who are responsible for 130 million American workers. In the UK, there are 910 HSE inspectors — despite a 25% decrease. Once again, per capita, the UK has much more in terms of resources. What’s more, the UK doesn’t solely depend on HSE inspectors. There are also safety inspectors whose authority comes from private organisations that are greenlit by HSE. It’s for this reason that the UK has over 100 safety inspectors who specialise in racking inspections alone.

There’s a lot the US can learn from Europe in terms of workplace safety, and it’s not just a simple matter of spending more. It’s a matter of creating legislation which allows for more private companies to do the job of health and safety as well. It’s also a matter of giving the institutions which do the job of safety more power and more responsibility. The American workplace can be safe, but it’s going to take a lot of imagination and a lot of bipartisan support.

Author bio

Justin O’Sullivan is a rack inspection expert from the UK. With his business, Storage Equipment Experts, Justin delivers rack inspections and rack inspection training to organisations across the UK and Ireland.

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