Indexing Toward a Safer Sport
During USPA’s existence, the association has worked aggressively to heighten safety awareness among its membership through education and training. Today, new skydivers can become safer jumpers more quickly because of information put forth by USPA and the skydiving community. The year-end fatality report (written since 1983 by Paul Sitter) continues to show the sport’s improvement and, with its categorization of fatalities, helps instructors to target key safety areas on Safety Day and throughout the year.
Yet, what does “25 fatalities in 2011” mean other than 25 fatalities too many? And how does the number of fatalities in 2011 compare with the number of fatalities two years earlier, when there were only 16? Or, to take it even further, what does 25 fatalities in 2011 mean compared to 25 fatalities, say, in 1965? To answer this question, we need to track our performance within the sport. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a statistical blueprint to help us do this.
When assessing industries, OSHA uses a standard to normalize raw data into an index that companies can use to consistently track safety performance regardless of the number of employees it has or how many hours they’ve worked. Although OSHA is not (nor should be) involved in regulation of skydiving, its method of normalizing data has merit and yields a more comprehensive look at the sport’s overall safety performance over a period of time.
The OSHA rate uses 200,000 hours, based on 100 workers working 40 hours for 50 weeks, as a constant. After all the math, an injury for every 200,000 work-hours would equate to an OSHA rate of 1.0. When comparing injuries against a normalized standard, the resulting index calculation brings a new meaning to data and provides consistency when measuring performance in safety.
Developing a Fatality Index Rate for Skydiving
USPA could also adopt a normalized index to compare fatality statistics and track the sport’s safety performance. The graph above represents such an index for skydiving fatalities. It uses an estimated total number of jumps per year (in earlier decades, due to a lack of recordkeeping, no solid numbers exist), which enables us to display a visual representation of the sport’s safety trend over the last 50 years. The first two decades’ figures are based on the total number of PCA (Parachute Club of America—USPA’s predecessor) members and the approximate number of jumps each would have made in a year.
The estimate of 600,000 jumps in 1961 takes into account factors such as skydiving’s physical rigorousness, the lack of available aircraft and the amount of time it took to pack the old military gear, which prohibited jumpers from making as many skydives annually as they do now. The number for following years factors in a 5 percent annual increase until the 1980s, when USPA began to keep jump-number statistics. In the ’80s, skydiving soared in popularity and equipment became better and easier to use, rapidly increasing the total number of jumps per year. In the past 10 years, the annual jump numbers have hovered around the 3- to 3.2-million mark.
USPA compiles jump-number information from its Group Member DZs annually. Though not all DZs respond with complete data, USPA extrapolates using the available information to arrive at a fairly reliable estimate of annual jumps in the U.S. (USPA also asks individual members for this information, although the data gathered this way tends to be less accurate and doesn’t capture student skydives.) The more accurate this data is and the more reliable DZs are in reporting it, the more precisely USPA can track safety performance over time. This data, along with the data that comes from grouping fatalities into categories, can help the industry measure the influence that safety policies are having on reducing the fatality index.
By taking these figures into account and implementing a fatality index rate, we can evaluate data that more accurately represents the sport’s true safety performance. The index uses 100,000 skydives as the standard number for normalizing the statistics (i.e., the index states what the number of fatalities is per 100,000 jumps). The left Y-axis shows the total number of fatalities each year, and the right Y-axis displays the corresponding fatality index rate for the same periods.
Now, take a look at the calculated fatality index rates in 1965 and 2011. In both years, there were 25 recorded skydiving fatalities, but the fatality index rate for 1965 is 3.6 per 100,000 jumps and for 2011 it is 0.8 per 100,000 jumps, a substantial decrease. Though any fatality is sad, when using this type of system, it is heartening to see how much safer the sport has gotten over the years.
In the chart below, we can graphically see the decreasing fatality rate using an index that compares “apples to apples” across the years. One particularly noticeable aspect of the graph is the sharp decline in the index numbers during the 1980s. This may be a result of the safer gear, better education and improved training materials and methods that became available in that era. In fact, OSHA statistics show that the same type of shift occurred in the chemical manufacturing industry, very possibly for similar reasons.
Future Safety Improvements
The skydiving industry’s investment in developing exceptional gear and new technology such as automatic activation devices and audible altimeters, and crafting thorough education and training programs has paid off. The skydiving fatality index rate began to consistently fall below the 1.0 mark in the 2000s. OSHA statistics show that once an index rate becomes less than 1.0, lowering it more becomes more difficult. That’s not to say it can’t improve—it certainly can—but it becomes harder to do so. This is borne out by the chart, which shows a flattening of skydiving’s rate since it fell below 1.0.
So, why is this, and what will it take to get the rate lower? Here is where the discussion becomes uncomfortable for any organization. Once an industry has developed the proper tools and put its education and training systems in place to achieve its safety goals, the behavior of individuals still exists. That’s why highly experienced skydivers jumping at well-respected drop zones are still involved in accidents. At this point, it may require a paradigm shift to continue to lower our fatality rate index.
Organizations may find that, after putting all the tools and training in place and experiencing a flattening of the index rate, it will have to move to monitoring individual behavior and instituting disciplinary measures. For example, a company may consist of a staff of competent, well-trained people who have the tools and education to work safely, but some employees may simply elect not to. These people will decide to take risks for themselves and will consequently put others at risk. At this point, to lower its index rate, the company will have to initiate disciplinary measures for those who elect to disregard safety practices. This will be what it takes for the skydiving industry to move further toward reducing its fatality index rate.
Not everyone will be comfortable with instituting disciplinary measures, even those having to deliver the messages, but that is what it will take to effect change. With effective industry-wide safety guidelines in place, drop zone owners and Safety & Training Advisors (as well as instructors and even individual jumpers) need to step up to the plate and take an active role in modifying behaviors.
Oftentimes, the first level of discipline simply needs to be a conversation. A jumper may not even be aware that he is making safety mistakes, and a positive intervention could be all it takes for a behavior to change. If the behavior doesn’t change, DZOs and S&TAs can ground someone who continues to display a behavior that puts themselves or others at risk. The disciplinarian can suspend someone’s jumping privileges for a short period of time or permanently, depending on the severity and frequency of the violations. The jumper may not receive the discipline well, but it is better to have someone upset with you than to have to make a hospital visit (or worse).
Discipline on the local level is what will help to maintain the reduction in the fatality index after it falls below 1.0. Some drop zones that share a local population of jumpers have made informal agreements to share information about safety violations with one another and to abide by the other DZs’ disciplinary measures (so if a jumper is grounded at drop zone A, he cannot go down the road to drop zone B to make a jump). Of course, if local measures fail or if the behavior is extreme, the complaint can escalate to the national organization or governing body. For skydiving, when all else fails, S&TAs and others can report problems to the USPA Regional Director in their area for further action.
Our sport is as precious as its people. Let us continue to press toward the mark: a year with a fatality index rate of zero.
About the Author
Rick DeShano, D-18067, has been jumping since 1993 and is a USPA Safety & Training Advisor and an IAD and Tandem Instructor at Central Michigan Skydivers in Mount Pleasant. He became involved with health and workplace safety issues and OSHA standards during his work at a major chemical manufacturing company.