Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities

History of BLS Safety and Health Statistical Programs

The seeds for safer workplaces through improving knowledge were sown at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, the Bureau of Labor Statistics fielded its first full-scale survey of safety and health conditions in American workplaces, with its 1912 study of industrial accidents in the iron and steel industry. Paralleling its interest in worker safety, the Bureau also sponsored the pioneering work of industrial hygienists, such as Dr. Alice Hamilton's early 20th century research on lead poisoning in the workplace. Other BLS studies of individual industries and safety and health topics followed, but it was not until the late 1930's that injury recordkeeping was sufficiently uniform to permit the collection of nationwide work injury data.

Once the American Standard Method of Measuring and Recording Work Injury Experience (the Z16.1 standard) was accepted by employers and statistical agencies, the BLS launched an annual nationwide survey of work injuries that resulted in death, permanent impairment, or temporary disability (unable to perform a regularly established job beyond the day of injury). Spanning three decades, these surveys proved useful in measuring and monitoring injury frequency and severity. However, they had some major limitations: first, the work injury data were compiled only from employers who volunteered to record and report that information; second, only disabling injuries defined in the Z16.1 standard were counted. Thus, numerous work injuries that required medical treatment but did not result in a full day away from work were excluded from survey estimates, as were, with few exceptions, occupational illnesses. These and other limitations eventually were addressed in a major piece of safety legislation passed by the Congress in the waning days of 1970.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was passed to ensure "so far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful-working conditions and to preserve our human resources" (PL 91-596, 1970). As a result of this legislation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created under the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health to enforce the regulations established by the 1970 act. Very specific language in the act gave an indication that Congress recognized statistics on workplace injuries and diseases were essential to an effective national program of prevention. The act, among other things, directed the Secretary of Labor to issue regulations to require employers to maintain records on workplace injuries and illnesses. The Secretary of Labor was also directed to compile accurate statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses and to make periodic reports on such occurrences.

The responsibility for collecting statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses was delegated to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In order to further the purposes of this act, the language was quite specific: "the Secretary shall compile accurate statistics on work injuries and illnesses which shall include all disabling, serious or significant injuries and illnesses, whether or not involving loss of time from work other than minor injuries requiring only first aid treatment and which do not involve medical treatment, loss of consciousness, restriction of work or motion, or transfer to another job." The purposes of the act are quite comprehensive and include the establishment of occupational safety and health standards, carrying out inspections and investigations, ensuring the maintenance of recordkeeping by employers on occupational injuries and illnesses, requiring reporting by employers of work-related deaths, and conducting research relating to occupational safety and health.

OSHA is charged with the responsibility of enforcing the provisions of the 1970 act, and BLS is the collector of statistics.

Last Modified Date: October 10, 2012

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