Rise in on-the-Job Motor Vehicle Deaths Spurs Safety Concerns

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Roadway accidents are the leading cause of on-the-job deaths in the U.S., but the safety issue remains outside the jurisdiction of the nation’s primary workplace safety agency—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

To fill the void, safety organizations are pushing for employers operating fleets of passenger cars and small trucks not covered by workplace safety regulations to start voluntary programs emphasizing training, maintenance, and tracking driver performance.

“The companies that are the most successful are the ones that look beyond requirements,” Lisa Robinson, a National Safety Council advocate for employer transportation safety, told Bloomberg BNA.

The call from safety promoters for employers to focus more on vehicle safety is propelled by the expanding toll of on-the-job highway fatalities. The number of work-related highway deaths has grown faster than the overall count of occupational fatalities, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures show.

Workplace fatalities for all types of incidents increased 3 percent from 2011 to 2015, while roadway deaths increased 15 percent. In 2015, federal data shows 1,264 workers died in roadway accidents. That’s 26 percent of the year’s on-the-job deaths, which stands at 4,836, and the most common reason for worker fatalities.

Professional drivers and others employed in transportation jobs accounted for 56 percent, or 708, of roadway deaths in 2015. The numbers for 2016 will likely be worse.

The National Safety Council estimates that in 2016 among all categories of drivers and passengers there were 42,200 deaths, about a 6.5 percent increase over 2015.

OSHA Takes a Back Seat

OSHA doesn’t closely regulate fleet safety because the federal Department of Transportation and states have the primary responsibility for setting and enforcing most of the nation’s road safety mandates. The 1970 law establishing OSHA gave federal agencies overseeing specific industries, such as airlines and commercial trucking, a first preference for regulating occupational safety in those industries.

“There aren’t a whole lot of standards out there governing fleet safety,” according to Terry Ketchum, vice-chairman of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) committee that recently revised a consensus standard for vehicle fleet safety (ANSI/ASSE Z15-2017) said.

Voluntary guidance can aid employers of any size, Stephanie Pratt, a member of the consensus standard committee and director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Center for Motor Vehicle Safety, told Bloomberg BNA.

The standard also is relevant to employers who don’t own vehicles, but instead use leased vehicles or reimburse workers for using personal vehicles, Pratt said.

Robinson said more employers would be convinced of the need for vehicle safety programs if they considered the costs that go beyond insurance premiums and vehicle repairs. There are the costs of workers missing time from their jobs, damage to an employer’s reputation, and liability for injuries to others.

The safety organization—Network of Employers for Traffic Safety—calculated that in 2013, on-the-job motor vehicle accidents cost employers $25.2 billion, with each fatality costing $671,000 and each non-fatal injury case costing $65,000.

Phones Distract Drivers

The rise in on-the-job roadway accidents has been attributed to an increase in distracted driving.

“We’re multi-taskers, and guess what, we don’t multi-task very well,” said Ketchum, who oversees worker safety and health for polymer supplier Covestro LLC’s Pittsburgh campus and sales force.

However, Robinson said, the distraction problem goes beyond the use of smart phones. Old problems such as reaching down to pick up something that fell to the floor have been joined by new digital dashboard distractions.

Among the specific distractions, the consensus standard calls for employers to address in their own safety programs are eating, drinking, grooming, pets, children, reading, smoking, and electronics such as MP3 players and information systems.

No Specific Regulations

Despite OSHA’s lack of regulations on distracted driving, the agency has issued citations for mobile phone use because of motor vehicle deaths.

In 2011, then-OSHA administrator David Michaels said the agency would consider issuing citations, using the broad general duty clause, to employers whose workers were involved in vehicle accidents while using mobile phones. The general duty clause requires employers to provide workplaces free of known safety hazards.

OSHA recently cited a company whose worker died at a road construction work zone in Florida, agency enforcement data shows. The worker was walking and talking on a mobile phone when he was struck by a dump truck in 2015. The employer, The Lane Construction Corp., is contesting the $7,000 proposed fine.

In a 2016 case, OSHA cited the employer of a driver whose dump truck struck and killed a worker in a road construction work zone. The company, Ajax Paving Industries of Florida LLC, reached a settlement, paying an $11,224 fine.

Smart Phone Monitoring

However, smart phones could be the way some employers improve safety.

New software programs can turn smart phones into devices that not only track a vehicle’s location, but also the driver’s actions.

Lori Sullivan, marketing director for Fleetio, which developed a smart phone-based system, said one of the product’s goals is to provide real-time information on how employees drive.

The program’s cost starts at $4 a month per driver.

The system, called Fleetio Drive, enables a smart phone to detect aggressive acceleration, hard braking, speed, location and whether the driver is touching the smart phone, Sullivan told Bloomberg BNA from the company’s office in Birmingham, Ala.

The smart phone relays the information back to a website the employer can monitor, Sullivan said. The driving data is stored, allowing fleet safety managers to later review a driver’s performance.

Management Safety Culture

Monitoring driver performance is among the actions the ANSI/ASSE consensus standard recommends employers use as part of their safety programs.

The standard’s emphasis is that each employer establish a formal safety policy underscoring employees understanding that while driving, safe operation of the vehicle is their primary responsibility.

Representatives from safety consulting groups, the Teamsters, employer organizations and individual companies wrote the 2017 update to the rule. The companies included several insurance carriers.

The standard’s tenets include:

  •  a driver recruitment and training program emphasizing safety,
  •  training specific to the type vehicle the driver will be using,
  •  regular vehicle inspections and maintenance,
  •  establishing distracted driving policies,
  •  allowing adequate rest breaks,
  •  deciding if trips are necessary,
  •  requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts,
  •  mandating drivers report all vehicle incidents,
  •  analyzing incidents, and
  •  tracking incident and injury rates.
The various components of any safety program need to be wrapped into a package that has the visible support of the company’s leadership.

“You have to have the high-level leadership say, ‘This is important to us’,” Pratt said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at brolfsen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

For More Information

Information on National Safety Council driving programs is available at http://www.nsc.org/learn/pages/nsc-on-the-road.aspx.

Information on NIOSH's Center for Motor Vehicle Safety is available at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/motorvehicle/default.html.

The Z15.1-2017 concensus standard is available for purchase at at http://src.bna.com/r18.

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