The Most Dangerous Industry in America

Posted on by Helen Zak

When safety and healthcare are said in the same sentence, you automatically think of patient safety, right?  Patient safety has been a top priority for healthcare professionals and although progress has been made, we still have a ways to go to fill the gap.  However, it is acknowledged, measured, tracked and reported publically.

I would like to highlight another facet of safety in healthcare- safety of the healthcare worker.  Did you know healthcare is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States?  Yes, it’s true; the injury rate (total recordable) 1 of workers in healthcare even exceeds manufacturing and construction, only surpassed by policemen. I am sure you are asking yourself, how can that be?  Healthcare workers are highly educated, motivated and dedicated.

Digest these statistics for more than 18 million healthcare workers in the US:

• Physical harm among nurses is 30 times higher than workers in other industries 2

• Injury and Illness rate of 5.6 per 100 full-time healthcare workers vs  4.2 per 100 for all of private industry 3

• More full-time employee (FTE) days are lost in healthcare each year than in industries such as mining, machinery manufacturing and construction 4

But, worker safety is not acknowledged, measured, tracked and reported publically.  Why not? I’ve heard from many healthcare leaders, when compared to other industries … “We’re different. We are saving lives, not building cars.”  True, but in the automotive industry, the worker injury rates are significantly lower than healthcare.  Don’t you think there is something to learn?

A few weeks ago, the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value and the Lean Enterprise Institute hosted our 4th Annual Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit-a way to learn, share and connect on topics important to healthcare leaders.  This year we were honored to have Paul O’Neill share his wisdom and leadership lessons about the work of Alcoa and its journey to become one of the safest companies in the world.  Today, the 2013 DART (days away plus restricted and job transfer) rate at Alcoa stands at 0.321 per 100 workers (remember the figure of 5.6 per 100 mentioned previously).  Alcoa calculates and publishes these rates in real time.  Amazing.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the company’s public website in the upper left-hand corner, you can’t miss it:

What about your company and worker safety?  How do you compare?

Let’s dig deeper on this topic.  Is worker safety the problem or is it a symptom?  While all organizations say, “people are our greatest asset,” few really have a culture that demonstrates that.  How can you tell?  One way to tell is the worker injury rate.

It’s not about the workers working in an unsafe way; it’s a problem with leadership and the priorities and decisions that get made on a daily basis.  Leaders set the example and actions speak louder than words.  In a nutshell, worker safety started at Alcoa with Paul O’Neill, CEO.  If the CEO did not walk the talk, no one would.  He started reporting publically on the Alcoa website the lost injury rate each day, he created an environment where it was safe to expose problems and created systems to solve problems that were exposed.  He had to create new habits and behavior for himself, his managers and the organization.  Over time, the habits of the organization changed, the culture was transformed and business results improved.

Take a minute and ask yourself the following questions about your organization:

1. Is it safe to expose problems in my organization?

2. Do we have a management system to solve problems throughout the organization?

If you answered no to either of these questions, I highly recommend this is where you need to spend some time.  Very often  in healthcare, problems are not exposed, not solved once and for all, so they keep coming up, creating wait, waste and harm to both workers and patients.  The ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value offers programs for healthcare leaders to help develop those new habits and behaviors-from peer-to-peer learning to educational programs, including Enduring Excellence, a program in which Paul O’Neill participates. To learn more,  visit:

Alcoa is just one case study among many that illustrates how good habits, when thoughtfully put in place by  leaders, can help transform organizations as well as change individuals’ lives.  My challenge to you as a healthcare leader-What are YOU going to do differently to make worker safety a priority in your organization? And remember, good habits lead to great results. Please report back on your progress. We would like to showcase healthcare examples in future posts.

If you are interested in reading more on the topic of worker safety in healthcare, visit:


1 Bureau of labor Statistics, Workplace Injuries and Illnesses- 2011

2, 3, 4 Through the Eyes of the Workforce, Lucian Leap Institute


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