The Nation’s Workplaces Are Getting Safer Overall—Just Not in Retail

In a year of otherwise encouraging safety injury data, the retail sector was called out for being the nation’s only industry to see an increase in the number of injuries in 2018.

“Retail trade was the only private industry sector where the total recordable cases rate increased in 2018, rising from 3.3 cases to 3.5 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers,” according the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its release of the data on November 7, 2019.

Some increases were eye-popping. For example, injuries to first-line supervisors of retail sales workers increased by 25 percent in 2018. The number of nonfatal cases in the private retail trade sector increased as well, according to the BLS—up 4 percent to 409,900 cases.

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General merchandise stores reported the greatest number of injuries and illnesses (96,000) followed by food and beverage stores (92,600 cases); motor vehicle and parts dealers (61,500 cases); and building material and garden supply stores (53,800 cases).

Falls, slips, and trips continue to plague the industry, data show. Of the 126,850 cases involving days away from work in retail in 2018, those resulting from falls, slips, or trips increased to 34,190 cases, an increase of 11 percent from 2017. Cases resulting from contact with objects and equipment increased 10 percent to 38,940 cases. Both events had a higher rate for workers in the retail trade sector than for workers in private industry, noted BLS data analysts.

Because retail was a notable weak spot, it was subject to additional scrutiny in the BLS data release. It noted the following trends:

  • Injuries and illnesses in retail trade most often resulted from sprains, strains, and tears, which accounted for 45,340, or 36 percent, of the days-away-from-work (DAFW) cases in 2018.
  • The DAFW incidence rate for sprains, strains, and tears was 38.4 cases per 10,000 FTE workers.
  • Injuries to the back comprised 17 percent (21,320) of DAFW cases injuries in retail.

The BLS also broke down injuries by occupation, finding that 15 occupations had at least 1,000 DAFW cases in 2018. Injuries and illnesses to retail salespersons accounted for 20 percent of the DAFW cases, increasing from 23,240 in 2017 to 25,600 in 2018. First-line supervisors of retail sales workers accounted for another 13 percent (15,940) of DAFW cases in retail trade in 2018, an increase of 25 percent from 2017.

What Might Help Retail Regain Its Safety Momentum?

We asked safety consultants about jumpstarting injury reduction, and they offered the following ideas:

1. Calculate safety costs per supervisor. A retailer should be sure that it’s not punishing supervisors who try to strike a balance between work, safety, and quality, but that is what they do if they don’t examine the costs from injuries by department and shift, according to one California safety consultant. Without allocating injury costs, supervisors have little motivation to spend time on safety activities. Supervisors whose teams’ have superior safety records need to receive positive reinforcement rather than being outshined by supervisors who allow their workers to get hurt.

2. Focus on influencing work processes rather than safety rules. One safety professional noted that when given a work task, workers typically hear and receive one directive: get it done. And, at that point, it’s not the wording of a policy or procedure that matters but the mindset of the worker. Does the workers take “get it done” to mean the “quickest way possible no matter how you do it?” Or, is there is an inherent understanding that a supervisor wants the worker to complete the task safely? It is unreasonable to expect supervisors will reinforce the safety message each time they make a directive, but store associates should think it is implicit in every job task they’re asked to perform.

3. Establish safety expectations as soon as new employees arrive. Especially when a tight labor market may cause a retailer to loosen hiring standards, “you’ve got to get them as soon as they get in the door to establish your expectations for safety,” said one consultant. “You can’t do it three months later.” Timing is critical because a workplace already has expectations for behavior that exceed what an individual would ordinarily do, such as when they need to wear gloves or goggles. Because safety expectations for stores and warehouses are likely to go beyond what workers typically do, it’s important to emphasize that you take them seriously as soon as a worker arrives. If not, you only compound your difficulty in getting workers to see the seriousness of following safety procedures, he said.


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