The National Safety Council (NSC) has an invaluable mission: to eliminate preventable deaths at work, in homes and communities, and on the road. The membership-based organization accomplishes its goals through leadership, research, education and advocacy. After profiling the Council in June 2015, Business in Focus sat down with President and CEO Deborah Hersman this month to hear the latest developments.
The National Safety Council (NSC), a nonprofit organization, takes on a diverse range of issues, many of which relate to the workplace. “The National Safety Council really does have a very broad focus,” Ms. Hersman says. “Certainly we look at workplace safety because we have almost 14,000 member companies. Those member companies really bring us a lot of awareness and expertise when it comes to workplace risk, so we look at everything from ergonomics, to fatigue, to substance abuse, to motor vehicle crash risk in the workplace.”
Many of these issues go beyond the workplace to affect people both on and off the job. Motor vehicle crashes—the number one cause of death for American teens—is one of the most pressing issues. “We are certainly focusing on those almost 5,000 fatalities that occur in the workplace, but we are also focusing on the 40,000 fatalities that occurred last year on our roadways,” Ms. Hersman explains. A substantial number of these fatalities occurred while people were driving on the job. “In workplaces, 40 percent of the fatalities are motor vehicle involved, so there is a lot of crossover. Even though some of these spaces may seem that they are off the job spaces, they really do have an impact on the safety that happens on the job.”
NSC is leading a coalition of over 250 organizations in the Road to Zero initiative. “We are looking to how to get to zero fatalities on our roadways in the next 30 years,” Ms. Hersman says. “It is free to join and we certainly invite any businesses to participate in this effort.” Road to Zero builds a critical dialogue between a wide range of entities, from public health officials and roadway safety representatives to nonprofit groups and technology companies.
The U.S. Department of Transportation pledged $1 million a year for three years to fund Safe System Innovation Grants as part of the Road to Zero initiative. NSC will distribute the grant money to applicants with programs that have the most effective and innovative approaches to evidence-based highway safety measures.
NSC is also working to improve data about motor vehicle crashes. The organization examined crash reports from all 50 states and realized that many of them fail to provide enough information. “Many states are not recording whether or not there was a positive drug test after the crash, whether or not people were using their phones to text,” Ms. Hersman shares. “So even though 46 states have laws banning texting while behind the wheel, less than half the states actually record whether or not people were texting behind the wheel before a crash. And we have a lot of technology in our cars, but it is not clear whether or not advanced safety systems were engaged [when there is a crash]. We want to make sure that all of that is accurately reflected on the records so we can make better decisions.”
There is a particular concern regarding the impact that marijuana use is having on motor vehicle safety. “States are decriminalizing marijuana, so that is definitely an issue when we talk about what constitutes impairment. Fifty percent of the population of the country lives in a state that has either decriminalized recreational or medical marijuana, but yet we still don’t have a great system to address this. For example, we have a Breathalyzer at the roadside for alcohol impairment but we don’t have anything for drugs at this point in time.”
Prescription drug misuse is another major safety issue that Americans deal with both on and off the job. “Our public health crisis has followed us into the workplace,” Ms. Hersman says. Unintentional drug overdose—primarily from prescription painkillers—is a leading cause of death for American adults.
Addiction to prescription painkillers impacts a remarkable number of people, communities, and workplaces, and a recent NSC survey lays out the startling statistics. “Over 70 percent of employers that we surveyed say they have been impacted by prescription drug misuse in their workplaces. That [includes] everything from absenteeism and decreases in productivity to even having employees arrested on the job or overdosing on the job.”
Many employers appear to be overwhelmed by the issue. “We found that even though 70 percent had been impacted by prescription drug misuse, only 19 percent of employers feel extremely prepared to deal with prescription drug misuse in the workplace.” The survey found that employers with clear drug policies and testing programs were the ones that felt prepared to handle the situation. Launching these types of protocols can be a crucial step for any business. “Putting your head in the sand like an ostrich and saying that this problem doesn’t exist in your workplace is really the wrong approach. Because we know that this problem exists in every workplace.”
Many employers who address substance abuse focus on illegal drugs and alcohol, Ms. Hersman says. “But your employees are much more likely to show up for work impaired by a prescription drug or an over the counter drug than they are by an illegal drug. So we really need to be paying attention to the biggest risk that we face.”
Concerned employers can take advantage of free support systems that NSC offers. For example, the organization’s downloadable toolkits provide a practical, step-by-step guide for improving workplace safety in specific areas. The prescription painkiller toolkit “has everything from science and education materials to a model policy that they can use to [develop] the kind of drug testing program that they need to have.”
Another toolkit shows employers “how to roll out a distracted driving policy amongst your workforce. We want to make sure that people have the ability to take the information that we put together through the work that we’ve done and are able to implement it. We can do the research, we can do the work, but companies have the hard job of actually putting some of that education and that theory into practice.”
NSC’s Journey to Safety Excellence provides free tools and resources to individuals looking to improve safety overall. The Council chose the word “journey” to describe the program because “there is always opportunity for further progress and improvement. The journey is identifying new issues, new opportunities.”
Those who join the program will enjoy immediate access to three important safety measurement tools: a safety assessment system to identify problem areas; an employee safety perception survey to provide a snapshot of the company’s safety culture; and an incident rate calculator to identify and compare data trends. Journey to Safety members can also access hundreds of articles, webinars, and case studies as well as receive updates on events and safety resources. Additional resources are available to companies and organizations that become NSC members.
NSC was founded over a century ago to improve workplace conditions during an era when on the job safety was given little thought. Today, the landscape is remarkably different. “We have seen workplaces be a leader when it comes to safety,” Ms. Hersman says. “People actually do a lot better job with safety at work and on the job than when they are off the job or at home.”
From climbing a ladder to using power tools or even changing a light bulb, workplaces are jam-packed with rules and regulations that determine who can do what and how they can do it. But, at home, it is an entirely different matter. “You see a lot of protections that are built into the workplace. There are a lot of things that people would never do while on the job that they go home and do and they think that the risks are minimal and they end up hurting themselves.”
Oftentimes, these injuries affect an employee’s ability to work—making safety in the home a larger issue. “There are a lot of costs that are associated with the choices that people make when they are off the job. So changing safety culture applies not just to what people do when they are in the office, or in the factory, or on the road for work. It is about what they take home with them and how they change their behaviors.”
Ms. Hersman uses safety-minded cell phone policies as an example of how workplaces are leading the way. “There are things that are not required by law by the federal government or by state governments, but employers do them. They don’t just meet the minimum requirements; they go beyond that. We don’t have any state that has a handheld or a hands-free phone ban, but we have a lot of companies that have voluntarily said that employees are not permitted to talk on the phone while they are behind the wheel, whether it is handheld or hands-free. And so leadership and safety is very evident in the business community.”
NSC urges the public to take workplace safety policies home with them. “People are nine times more likely to be killed or injured off the job than on the job,” Ms. Hersman says. “While we have come a long way in the last hundred years making workplaces safer, we still have a lot of work to do off the job.”