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Q&A: Deborah A.P. Hersman, National Safety Council

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Deborah A.P. Hersman became president and CEO of the National Safety Council in March 2014. Based in Itasca, Illinois, the nonprofit organization works to prevent injuries and fatalities at work and in homes and communities. Prior to joining the National Safety Council, Ms. Hersman served on the National Transportation Safety Board and was its chairman from 2009 to 2013. Citing her desire to help people learn from a “tragic event without having to experience it,” Ms. Hersman recently spoke with Business Insurance Associate Editor Stephanie Goldberg about the major risks various age groups face and how the National Safety Council is working to mitigate them. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: How have your experiences on the National Transportation Safety Board shaped what you do in your current role?

A: At the NTSB, where I was before, we had the job of investigating incidents and determining their probable cause and making recommendations to prevent them from recurring. At the National Safety Council, we follow the data, we follow the facts, and we issue recommendations, guidance, best practices and tool kits for employers to use. We advocate for laws and changes in regulations, whether it's for the individual or organizational or national level.

Q: What are some of the biggest safety concerns right now?

A: For the youngest members of our population, it's motor vehicle crashes. Children and teens, those into their 20s, that's the biggest risk factor for them. A lot of people may be under the impression that teens have crashes because they're irresponsible behind the wheel. That's really not the case. It's about a lack of experience. Their first year and their first 1,000 miles are the deadliest.

For people in middle age, the biggest killer is drug overdoses. Prescription painkillers really are responsible for more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. These are drugs people are getting sometimes for very innocent reasons and then getting addicted to, resulting in these unintended overdoses. They're taking multiple medications, so they have reactions between the drugs. Some of them are doctor shopping, so they're getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors.

Slipping and falling is the biggest risk area for older adults. For Americans older than 65, the number of fall-related deaths has increased 112% (since 1999). It's important for us to understand that this is a significant problem that leads to hospitalizations, and then they might have complications once they're in the hospital.

Q: Moving forward, will the National Safety Council focus more on injuries and fatalities that occur in the workplace or at home?

A: We do see 4,000 fatalities in the workplace every day, but people are nine times more likely to be injured or killed off the job than on the job. While we do really focus on safety at work because we are a 100-year-old organization that was founded on workplace safety, we also try to communicate to people about the risks off the job.

Q: How can employers encourage workers to take safe behaviors home with them?

A: There are a lot of ways to encourage safety at home. We encourage companies to put their own cellphone policies on their employees. So the company has a policy to say no calls when you're behind the wheel — handheld or hands-free. Once employers put these restrictions in place, that becomes the (modus operandi).

So encouraging people to take lessons (as well as) the smart things you have in the workplace home — some of it is about communication, some of it is about modeling the right behavior, and some of it is about educating employees so they understand what the risks are and enabling them to make decisions about their behavior, too.