Safely Speaking

2020: The Deadliest Year

Betsey Kulakowski, CSHO, COSS

Executive Director, Oklahoma Safety Council

If you’d asked me what I was thinking about this time last year, I can promise you it certainly wasn’t what a messed-up, awful year was ahead of us. If memory serves me, I think we’d heard some rumblings about the “coronavirus” that was just popping up in China, but we were on the road, headed to Colorado for a family trip to a secluded cabin in the mountains over the holidays. It was a trip that would be cut short when my husband came down with a horrible respiratory infection. Of course, then, no one was looking for coronavirus here. (Was it COVID? We may never know. He tested negative for the flu.  Fortunately, he recovered in a couple of weeks.)

In February, we took our first cruise, and returned back to Galveston the same day a cruise ship in New Jersey was put on lockdown; the passengers quarantined for what seemed like weeks. We got lucky. From there, I had a quick trip out to Little Rock for a meeting, and within days of returning, Oklahoma had its first confirmed case after a visiting basketball team had a player test positive for the virus. I haven’t traveled since. I had four business trips planned for 2020; all of which were cancelled.

From there, things seemed to snowball. City leaders in Tulsa issued shut-down orders that closed our Tulsa facility, and a week later, OKC had similar orders. Weeks of no business made things seem grim. (“Welcome to your first year as Executive Director, Ms. Kulakowski.”)

While the Safety Council has managed to keep going, it’s still been a year filled with uncertainty, turmoil, and strife. I am blessed with an excellent team who pulled together and found a way to keep going, all the while keeping ourselves and our customers safe.

Experts are now saying 2020 is likely to go down as the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths expected to top three million for the first time – mainly due to COVID-19.  While the final mortality data for 2020 will not be available for months, preliminary numbers suggest the U.S. could see more than 3.2 million deaths, which is about 400,000 more than 2019.

But COVID alone isn’t entirely to blame for the rising numbers. It’s not uncommon for U.S. deaths to rise a few percent each year but in addition to a global pandemic, the number of fatalities from opioid overdoses, motor vehicle crashes, and suicide are expected to account for the increase in the number.

The last major jump like this was in 1918-19 when tens of thousands of U.S. Soldiers died in World War I and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the Spanish Flu Pandemic.

In 2019 there were 5,333 worker fatalities, a significant increase in work-related deaths, the highest numbers since 2007. While it’ll still be a while before the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 numbers come out (they tend to run about a year behind), it’s probably safe to assume the number of worker deaths will also see an increase. 

So, what can we do to make 2021 just a little brighter?

  • COVID has now become one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the US. As such, it’s important for everyone to remain diligent. Continue to follow COVID-19 protocols at all times (e.g., facial coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, cough/sneeze protocols, housekeeping, avoiding crowds). We can’t let our guard down just because vaccines are now being deployed. Not everyone is willing or able to take the vaccine. It’s going to take time to get vaccinations to the general population, and once people are vaccinated, it takes time for the body to respond. We can’t let our guard down.
  • Motor vehicle crashes have gone up in 2020, despite more people being covered by stay-at-home or quarantine orders. It’s critical to practice safe driving protocols at all time. Buckle up. Slow down. Put your phone up. Remember, hands-free doesn’t mean risk-free, so don’t rely on hands-free either. Drowsy and impaired driving are also key factors in many crashes. Always make sure your well-rested before you drive. Employers should be cognoscente of the risk of their employees having to drive after working long shifts, or swing shifts. Fatigue is a recognized hazard and its your duty to protect workers from recognized hazards. Alcohol, prescription, and non-prescription medication can also contribute to a crash. If you drink or take medications, do not drive. Call for a Lyft or an Uber or have a designated driver.  Employers should have strict policies to prevent employees from grabbing a drink during their lunch break or otherwise using alcohol, drugs, or medications that could result in a crash while driving on the job.
  • Poisonings are another leading cause of preventable deaths, primarily from opioids. Talk to your physician or other health care provider about the medications you take. Ask if there are alternatives to opioids if you need something for pain. Ask for the minimum dose, and when you don’t need the medication anymore, make sure it’s properly disposed of, and never give or sell your medications to someone else (it’s against the law).  Preventing work-related injuries can reduce the likelihood of an employee being given an opioid for pain. An effective safety and health management system is essential!

Yeah, 2020 was a rough year, but 2021 doesn’t have to be. We all have to do our part to make our world a little more safe and healthful.  From the Oklahoma Safety Council, we wish each of you a year full of happy memories and good health!

About the Author

With 30 years of experience as a safety professional and a degree in Emergency Management, Betsey Kulakowski is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Safety Council. Betsey also serves as the co-chair for the OKC Chapter of Women in Safety Excellence (WISE), a special interest group of the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP).