What do you believe is most pressing issue for workers asked to rank labor standards in order of importance? Minimum wage? Overtime pay? Paid sick days? Family and maternity leave?
Actually, the answer is workplace safety. Eighty-five percent of workers rate workplace safety as being their most important labor standard, according to a new study from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC).
Called Public Attitudes Towards and Experiences With Workplace Safety, the study draws on the results of dozens of NORC surveys and polls conducted between 2001 and 2010.
Although most workers say they are satisfied with safety conditions at work, they also report experiencing job-related stress, a contributing factor to injury. A 2006 NORC study found that 13 percent of workers find their jobs are always stressful, while 21 percent find their jobs are often stressful.
“Exhaustion, dangerous working conditions and other negative experiences at work are reported by many workers,” says Tom Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey. “Such conditions mean that workplace accidents are far from rare.”
Despite widespread public concern about workplace safety, the study also found that the media and the public tend to pay closest attention to safety issues when disastrous workplace accidents occur. And even during such tragedies, the fate of workers is often overlooked, such as during the recent oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Workplace safety is too often ignored or accidents taken for granted,” says Smith. “It is striking that coverage in the media and public opinion polls have virtually ignored the 11 workers killed by the blowout and destruction of the drilling platform.”
Media questions mainly focused on the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and overlooked worker safety. Had optimal safety been maintained, Smith notes that not only would 11 lives have been saved, but the entire environmental disaster would have been averted.
Robert Shull, program officer for workers’ rights at the Public Welfare Foundation, says that workplace safety should be a constant concern.
“Given the importance that workers themselves place on this issue, we should not have to mourn the loss of people on the job before government and employers take more effective measures to ensure that employees can go home safely after work,” says Shull.