Voice of the Industry
How Hazardous Is the Printing Industry?
By Patrick Henry
Published: June 21, 2010
The post about OSHA fines hanging over a Pennsylvania printer drew some sharp comments about safety practices in the printing industry. One question was especially provocative: is the recession-battered printing industry skimping on safety by paying less attention than it once did to protecting life and limb on the job?
The answer would be impossible to establish without a full-scale investigation of a kind that neither OSHA nor the industry seems likely to launch anytime soon. But the data we do have indicate that while it’s still quite possible to get hurt or even killed in a printing plant, print firms offer workers a safer environment than private-sector industry as a whole. What’s more, the numbers on safety in printing and related services have been improving steadily for years.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes those numbers available here. We pulled the reports titled “Incidence rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses by industry and case types” from 2000 through 2008, the most recent year for which data are available. In these reports, “incidence rates” represent the number of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers as calculated by OSHA on the basis of its annual survey of occupational injuries and illnesses (not on incidents actually recorded by OSHA).
A related report, “Numbers of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses by industry and case types,” presents a survey-based count of cases resulting in days away from work, job transfer, or job restriction. Both reports present data according to NAICS code, and in this system, printing and its related support activities are classified as 323.*
The table shows that according to BLS data, the printing industry’s incidence rate has declined in almost every year since 2000, dropping from a millennial 5.9 to 2008’s 3.2. Similarly, the count of non-fatal injury and illnesses in went from an estimated 31,600 in 2000 to an estimated 18,900 in 2008. Fatalities also occur in printing, but mercifully, the numbers are small. The relevant BLS document is "Fatal occupational injuries to private sector wage and salary workers, government workers, and self-employed workers by industry, All United States," and it (along with corresponding reports from years prior to the adoption of NAICS in 2003) shows an average of about five lives lost per year in the printing trades from 2000 to 2008. (These are documented deaths, not estimates from surveys.) Even one on-the-job fatality related to printing is more grief than anyone wants to bear, and no right-minded member of the industry could be complacent about the fact that its day-to-day operations remain dangerous enough to put nearly 19,000 print workers on the sick or injured list every year. In fact, BLS data give us no reason to suppose that printing companies have been doing anything but taking steps to reduce the exposure of their employees to workplace hazards. If they weren’t doing what they could to minimize the risks, it would be hard to understand how the industry’s incidence rate for 2008 (3.2) came in significantly below that of private sector employers in aggregate (3.9). Or how print-related fatalities in 2008 came to represent only about one-tenth of one percent of all workplace deaths that year—minuscule in comparison with many other occupational categories. We don’t yet have data for 2009, a year of drastic losses for the industry, and when we get them, the question about whether a link exists between printers’ fortunes and their accident rates can be asked again. In the meantime, we can ponder the correlation, if there is one, between the industry’s better-than-average safety record and the kinds of enforcement and penalties that OSHA has brought to bear upon S.G. Printing. But the numbers, such as they are, seem to be telling us that printers don’t need the negative motivation of threatened punishment to keep their plants compliant and their employees safe. *Some of the numbers cited for 2000, 2001, and 2002 are those of different classification methods then in use by BLS and other branches of government.