Workers Memorial Day on 28 April commemorates people who have died at work.
The number of workplace fatalities in developed countries has shown a steady decline that parallels increasingly thorough safety standards across a variety of occupations (A UK example).
Still in the USA in 2011, 4693 people died at work according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Developing countries have a much higher rate of workplace fatalities. For example, coal miners’ deaths in China frequently make the headlines. A recent collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh has prompted concerns about worker safety. The event has prompted reflections on the responsibility of management for safety standards and customers for ethical purchasing.
One challenge of workplace safety arises from the fact that people are usually pretty bad at risk assessment.
Bad Math. People often neglect to compound the risk associated with frequent repetitions of a low-risk event. In the Bureau of Labor Statistics table above, it is noteworthy that the largest frequency of fatalities arose from automobile accidents. Although the risk of injury from one automobile trip is low, that risk compounds such that the risk of an accident across a large number of automobile trips becomes more evident. For example, if one repeated an activity with a 1/1000 chance of an accident 100 times, the risk of one accident across all 100 of those incidents is 10% (.999100 = .90)! Risks of an automobile accident are very low per trip, but jobs require many people to drive often. It does not just add up, it increases geometrically.
Optimism Bias. People are inclined to believe that they are less at risk than the general public. Even if they could do the math correctly, people are inclined to think of themselves as special. They are luckier or smarter or more blessed than ordinary people who provide the grist for the accident statistics. The CBC news reported this morning that ½ of teenagers in a Nova Scotia survey stated that they do not use seatbelts in cars. They claim they do not remember to buckle up despite cars having alarms sounding to prompt them to do so. The neglect is more likely due to an optimistic belief in their youthful immortality despite clear evidence that automobile accidents are the most frequent causes of death among teenagers in North America. frequent causes of death among teenagers in North America.
Although optimism can be a genuine psychological asset most of the time, it is advised to tone it down a bit when assessing risk. You are special, but not that special.