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Safety last: safety in the Alaska workplace.

There's a lot of reasons -- including attitudes -- why Alaska ranks last in worker safety. There's also a lot of things that can be done.

Harvesting huge logs and wrestling them into place on steep, treacherous slopes. Fishing from a pitching, rolling deck in the turbulent waters of the Bering Sea. Flying through dangerous mountain passes in foul weather. These are the working conditions for many Alaskans, and the reason that so many of the state's workers -- 87 in 1992 -- die on the job.

According to figures kept by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Alaska's record for on-the-job deaths in the period from 1980 through 1989 was 34.8 per 100,000 workers, almost five times the national average.

And fatalities don't tell the whole story of how dangerous a work place the state can be. According to figures collected by the Alaska Department of Labor's Standards and Safety Division, the total economic impact of work-related injuries and fatalities in Alaska for 1992 was $582.4 million.

That figure includes insurance losses, lost productivity, increased social services, increased vocational rehabilitation costs and employee replacement training costs. Alaskans suffered a total of 9,933 lost-time injuries, according to Labor Department figures.

Dr. George Conway, chief of the Alaska Activity division of NIOSH, says that there is probably even more to the story than that. "Deaths are better documented. The law is vague about reporting injuries."

Injuries not only cost society as a whole, but impose a real financial burden on victims and their families. Economists at the RAND Corp. estimate that 45 percent of treatment costs and lost income fall on the injury victim and his or her family. The remaining 55 percent comes from a variety of public and private funds such as private health insurance, employer-provided benefits, workers compensation and other public programs.

Real Cost of Doing Business

Things don't seem to be improving much. In 1991, Alaska suffered 79 on-the-job fatalities -- eight fewer than last year. Don Study, an investigator with the Alaska Department of Labor, notes that the number of claims for injuries has increased from 22,969 in 1990 to 27,742 in 1991 and 29,323 in 1992. He notes that the rate of lost-time injuries has gone down, but suspects that may be due to decreased work.

Two things safety specialists agree on: Even given conditions in Alaska, most accidents are preventable, and that improved safety comes from improved awareness. To reduce accidents, workers and management need a new attitude, a new mindset about prevention. Management needs to make safety a priority and provide the framework -- a safe workplace, equipment, training and incentives -- for employees.

Indeed, safety specialists don't like to use the word "accident." Says Gary Bledsoe, occupational injury prevention program coordinator for the state, "If you say it's just an accident, it almost sets up a chain of events. All accidents are, by definition, unpreventable, and almost all occupation injuries, including fatalities, are preventable. At our convention, the keynote speaker offered $50 to anyone who could provide an example of a real-life accident -- one that could not have been prevented -- and nobody collected."

Jan Manwaring, an investigator who specializes in logging accidents for NIOSH, says, "Historically, people in Alaska have tended to think of accidents as part of the cost of doing business. That's the wrong attitude. We should think of spending more time and money on prevention as the cost of doing business."

A New Attitude

Richard Morris, Arco Alaska health, safety and environmental manager for Prudhoe Bay, says, "Sometimes industry gives incentives for taking shortcuts. No company is dumb enough to tell employees to cheat, but they set up disincentives to safety. It's a matter of changing habits. Management can't keep running safety. Peer pressure is more valuable than management rules to employees."

Morris says that about a year and a half ago, Arco made up its mind to be an industry leader in safety. A behavior-modification program was set up in which employees essentially are responsible for safety. "We had to revitalize," he says. "We wanted to create a system that would be self-sustaining. Now we don't have a safety program; we have a process consisting of a lot of tools."

The result: Arco Alaska suffered nine loss-time injuries, all strains and sprains, among about 1,000 at Prudhoe Bay during 1992.

Morris explains that one gripe he heard was that every couple of years, there was a new safety program -- and after six or eight months, "The energy goes away. We decided to have more line staff involvement. With that in mind, we evaluated several systems and settled on BST -- behavioral scientific techniques. It's been found that 80 percent to 90 percent of accidents are caused by unsafe behavior.

"This is a proactive way to identify at-risk behaviors, and there is tremendous ownership among hourly workers. Our biggest asset is having people responsible for their actions. We give them a safe place to work."

Says Morris, "There's no new approach to safety, no magic road. You have to have management commitment. There has to be management commitment. At Arco, the top officers look at every lost-time accident."

The state's Don Study agrees, and points out that companies vary enormously in their safety records. "Eight percent of employers accounted for half of injuries. We're targeting employers within industries who are causing the injuries. We're trying to get that turned around. We have two companies that accounted for 396 loss-time injuries. These are two companies in general industry, neither high-hazard. We never suspected we had a problem."

Study says that one thing Alaskans haven't had much of a problem with is sickness caused by exposure to workplace chemicals. He says that there has been some exposure to silicon, but that generally speaking, even that has been pretty well provided for.

Study adamantly disputes those who see safety as one more burden and a detriment to business. "Studies consistently show that a safe workplace is more productive and profitable than one that isn't. And expenses can be controlled. There's a lot of required training that can be combined -- hazwoper and respiratory -- for example. Our consultants are ready to show employers how to do it properly and cut costs."

Commercial Fishing

Of 1992's 87 deaths, 35 were in the commercial fishing industry, and 33 of those were drownings. Of those drownings, 87.5 percent of the victims were not wearing personal flotation devices, or PFDs, according to NIOSH. NIOSH also report that of the fishermen saved in 1991 in incidents where others died, nearly two-thirds were wearing PFDs. This, says Michael Klatt, a NIOSH public health advisor, strongly suggests that wearing a flotation device increases the chance of being saved.

Manwaring explains that it is often difficult to pinpoint the cause of accidents in the fishing industry. "In logging, for example, we can often reconstruct the incident. But in fishing, the bottom line is that many times nobody knows what happened. There may have been no distress signal; a boat is simply missing. There is no equivalent of a flight plan for fishers."

Tony Ford, safety officer for Arctic Alaska Seafoods, says fishers, whether part of a large company or an individual, need a three-part program. "One part is a vessel inspection. Basically you walk around and look, see if people can trip in the galley, things like that. The next part is safety drills and instruction. There are significant skills that have to be learned onboard. I'm a big fan of education.

"The third is individual training standards," Ford continues. "OSHA and Alaska OSHA say, for example, that you have to have a hazcom program, and we have a one-day stability class for captains and engineers. We also have a computer to help calculate other factors."


NIOSH's timber-industry specialist Manwaring points out that loggers in Alaska face dangerous conditions not found many other places: Slopes are extremely steep, trees don't have an anchoring taproot due to permafrost, and during clear-cutting, erosion and lack of windblock make for hazardous conditions.

"Those guys are felling and bucking trees on 70-degree slopes," Manwaring says. "They're doing complicated operations where it's difficult to even stand up."

According to Manwaring, Finland, which formerly had one of the highest timber industry accident rates in the world, now has about a tenth the accident rate of Alaska. "They took a three-pronged approach," he explains. "First, they have tremendous training, with guidance on the job from experienced workers. Second, they have adopted improved logging techniques. Third, they have improved personal protective equipment, especially new helmets with chin straps, visors and impact attenuation."

"There are multiple ways of intervening to prevent accidents," says Manwaring. "There's technical, which means more engineering solutions, and there's non-technical, common-sense ways, such as not drinking on the job and wearing a seat belt or safety glasses."

"All these accidents are theoretically preventable," Manwaring contends. "Most people killed on the job are victims of unsafe procedures that go against state logging practices. It's something they may have done many times, but finally factors line up against them."

Those charged with the safety of Alaska's workers emphasize that prevention is cheaper in the long run. Accidents are expensive in many ways -- lost time, bad publicity and decreased worker morale. Workers need a safe place to work, and the incentives and freedom to operate safely.

Says Arco's Morris, "Workers can be leaders. Nobody comes to work wanting to get hurt."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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