Promoting a Culture of Safety
Strategic Initiatives for Risk Management, Part 1
By: Adrienne Quigley and Randy Means
Ed. Note: This article is the first in a multi-part series that focuses on risk management through improved focus on safety and wellness through strategic leadership initiatives.
Risk management thinking in law enforcement often centers on liability prevention in activities like deadly force and high-speed driving. However, less spectacular matters exact higher tolls in both human and dollar costs, and preventing civil liability is only one aspect of risk management.
OSHA reports that 56,000 lives are lost each year to work-related accidents.
In an average day, 154 people die from occupational disease or in work-place accidents and an additional 16,000 are injured. Injuries and illnesses account for more than 700,000 lost work-days per year. To put this in statistical perspective, occupational disease and accidents kill more people each year in the United States than were lost in all the years of the Vietnam War.
Public safety employment is even more dangerous than other types of work, with injury and fatality rates three times higher than in non-public safety occupations. A common misperception is that these negatives occur mostly in violent encounters with armed suspects. The reality is that accidental deaths in law enforcement have outnumbered felonious deaths for the past 15 years.
A recent Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses documented an incidence rate of 14.5 injuries per 100 full-time local law enforcement officers and a rate of 5.9 for state law enforcement officials. Extrapolating from data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to establish the number of state and local law enforcement personnel employed during that year, officers sustained approximately 106,950 work-related injuries and illnesses during 2008, only 15,554 of which were attributable to an assault. In fact, more officers suffer injuries during slips and falls or while participating in departmental training than during assaults.
Often overlooked in law enforcement efforts at risk management and austerity more generally are workers’ compensation losses and disability payouts. A comprehensive review of risk management data in North Carolina over the past five years defined average medical costs for common law enforcement injuries. Bone fractures average just over $23,000 per injury; strains/sprains cost approximately $12,000; and contusions can cost up to $13,000. Single serious incidents, such as a motorcycle crash with head trauma, can cost an agency close to $7 million.
One study tabbed the expense of early retirement due to disability at 165 percent of an officer’s salary. And none of these figures include paying for the overtime and training required to backfill a position while an officer is on medical leave or restricted duty. According to national accident, injury and illness data, 20 percent of the average law enforcement agency’s workforce is responsible for 80 percent of workers’ compensation losses. Simply focusing on that 20 percent could result in significant savings for an organization through reduced health care costs, lower workers compensation losses, and fewer disability payments.
Culture of Injury Acceptance?
The IACP recently distributed a survey to law enforcement agencies nationwide, gathering basic officer injury data from previous years. A total of 698 agencies responded, documenting approximately 2,800 injuries and 24,000 lost work days. Additional analysis was done regarding the safety culture within those agencies.
The study revealed that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement administrators believed the injuries were not preventable. Immediately it became clear that to make significant progress in the field of officer safety, attitudes have to change. Policing is a “contact sport” but agencies should not view injuries and lost workdays as unavoidable or acceptable.
Organizations provide and require a significant amount of tactical training to increase officer awareness and reduce susceptibility to assaults but do much less to address other safety concerns. Law enforcement leaders should take account of the broader array of risk considerations and assert themselves more strenuously in those areas. Examples follow.
Research estimates that the risk of a police officer dying from gunfire is 14 times greater without body armor than with it. Accepting that as fact, since 1980 ballistic vests could have saved more than 30 percent of the officers killed in the line of duty. When evaluating felonious assaults involving firearms, the save percentage is even higher. Despite this compelling data, some officers still choose not to wear their body armor, complaining that it is uncomfortable and stifling.
Even more staggering is the number of agencies that provide body armor to their officers but do not require them to wear it. A survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in collaboration with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that although 99 percent of law enforcement agencies provide body armor to their officers, only 57 percent require them to wear it. So, this powerful safety measure is optional in many places. Even fewer agencies, 10 percent, inspect the armor for fit, coverage and damage and, of those who do, only half inspect them annually.
Forty-nine states have adopted primary and secondary seatbelt laws. The specifics of these laws vary greatly from state to state and a few exempt public safety officials from their coverage. Most agencies, even in states where law doesn’t mandate it, require by policy that officers use seatbelts. But enforcement is lax. Many officers go to great lengths to avoid wearing their seatbelts and have devised creative ways to shut off the automatic seatbelt indicators installed in newer model cruisers.
This behavior is indicative of a much larger problem—the cultural acceptance that safety is not a priority. Organizational and agency failure to enforce their policies only strengthens this mindset. NHTSA found that 42 percent of the officers killed in motor vehicle accidents over the past three decades were not wearing their seatbelts at the time of the crash.
Next month: The risks of foot pursuits and solutions to manage that risk.
Captain Adrienne Quigley is a 17-year veteran of the Arlington County, Va. Police Department. She has held supervisory positions in patrol, investigations and professional standards, and is a nationally recognized expert in officer safety and injury prevention. She graduated with high honors from The George Washington University and her Master’s Degree in Public Administration is from George Mason University.
Randy Means is a former military officer, former department head at a state law enforcement training center, for nearly 10 years a major city police legal advisor, and for the last 25 years has provided training and consulting services to the law enforcement community nationwide as a partner in The Thomas & Means Law Firm headquartered in Charlotte, N.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.