health and safety

Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its latest report on private sector workplace injuries and illnesses for 2021 and 2022. And it wasn’t good news. Both injuries and illnesses were up in 2022: injuries were up 4.5% to 2.3 million cases and illnesses up 26.1% to a whopping 460,700 cases!  The latter driven by – you guessed it – a 35.4 % rise in respiratory illnesses (356,000 cases in 2022).

And if that isn’t dismal enough, we know that the actual numbers are likely higher. Workplace injuries and illnesses are reported by employers, and studies have shown that these injury and illness numbers are significantly under-reported. Based on research, the AFL-CIO reports that the true toll in the private sector alone is estimated to be two to three times greater.

Also note that these statistics only cover the private sector. Public employees, who are not covered by OSHA in 23 states, are not included in this report.

There are so many reasons and incentives for NOT reporting. Employers are concerned that reports may trigger higher workers comp premiums, an OSHA inspection, labor unrest, or loss of reputation. Workers rightly fear job or wage loss and other forms of employer retaliation if they report injuries or illnesses. Indeed, low wage earners, racial/ethnic minority workers, and workers who perceive a poor psychosocial work environment encounter more barriers to reporting a work‑related injury or illness.

Digging Into the Data

It’s one thing just to look at the number of injuries. But to understand how serious those injuries are, you have to also look at whether workers missed time due to injuries or illnesses, whether their duties were restricted, or if they were transferred to other jobs while injured or ill. And then look at how much time they spent off the job or working in an alternative job arrangement.

Workers lost a lot of time due to workplace injuries and illnesses over the 2021- 2022 period: 2.2 million cases involved days away from work (DAFW), requiring a median of 10 days away. All while managing the pain, suffering, and likely disruption of home and family routines and responsibilities due to the injury or illness. An additional 1.1 million cases involved job transfer or restriction (DJTR), with a median of 15 days.

A 2015 report by OSHA—Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job — showed how work-related injuries damage families’ incomes long after the initial injury or illness is resolved.  The report noted that even after receiving workers compensation benefits, injured workers’ incomes are, on average, nearly $31,000 lower over 10 years than if they had not suffered an injury

health and safety

Transportation and material moving occupations experienced the highest number of days away from work, job restriction, or transfer (DART). Most cases were due to overexertion and bodily reaction – the causes of most musculoskeletal injuries, like back injuries and muscle strains.  For healthcare practitioners and workers in technical occupations, most DART cases were due to exposure to harmful substances or environments (including cases of COVID-19) , followed by overexertion and bodily reaction.

COVID-19, contracted on the job, continues to take a toll on American workers.  The highest COVID-19 infection rate for 2021 and 2022 was among healthcare and social service workers. The number of respiratory illnesses in private health care and the social assistance sector increased by 37.5% in 2022.

In grocery stores, the rate was 190.4 cases per 10,000 FTE workers, an increase from 66.8 in 2021. That’s one helluva increase.

We still have no good idea of how many workers have died due to COVID-19 acquired on the job, as almost no one is counting.

As noted above, musculoskeletal disorders like back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and muscle strains continue to be  an ongoing problem for workers.  Over the 2-year period, there were 502,380 reported cases of MSDs that resulted in at least one day away from work.  OUCH!

Others Didn’t Come Home at All

According to the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), in 2021, a worker died every 101 minutes from a work-related injury. In the United States! That’s 14 every single day!  Maybe someone you know or love.

That year, there were 5,190 fatal work injuries — an 8.9% increase from 4,764 in 2020 and the highest annual rate since 2016. Fatalities due to violence and other injuries by persons or animals increased by 7.9%. Exposure to harmful substances or environments resulted in 708 worker fatalities, the highest figure since the series began in 2011.

And those are just fatalities related to on-the-job injuries. that an additional 120,000 worker die each year as a result of occupational diseases like exposure to toxic chemicals or infectious diseases.

CFOI data for 2022 will not be available until next month, but Confined Space — a newsletter singularly focused on worker health, safety, and labor issues – provides a Weekly Toll that recounts some of these tragedies.

A Holiday Message

Yes, these statistics are depressing. But they are also motivating. As we finish off the Thanksgiving leftovers and await the end-of-year holidays, let’s remember and be thankful for our nation’s workforce and the resources and benefits they provide for all of us. Let’s use it as a time to renew our commitment to worker health and safety. Let’s be strong and active advocates to help ensure that our working brothers and sisters can come home to us safe and healthy at the end of every workday. Specifically, let’s press for:

  • A strong and well-resourced federal and state regulatory regime for occupational safety and health
  • Enactment of needed federal OSHA standards – for workplace violence, infectious diseases, and heat
  • Enactment of an MSHA silica standard
  • Congressional passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which would expand OSHA coverage to public sector workers in the 23 states without it, strengthen whistleblower protections and increase penalties.
  • Increase in unionization. Strong unions are ultimately the best protection for workers’ rights and health and safety in the workplace. Bills like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (or PRO Act) which would expand various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace, need to be passed by Congress, and the National Labor Relations Board, that protects workers’ right to organized must be better funded.

And let’s PUSH BACK STRONGLY on any congressional effort to roll back OSH and other labor protections, defund our OSH regulatory agencies, and weaken voting rights.  Republicans are planning deep cuts in these already underfunded agencies. We need to talk to our legislators and vote to ensure that doesn’t happen.

I’m thankful every day for friends and colleagues like you. Together we are a powerful force. Together, can do this.

Kathleen Rest is the former Executive Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former Acting Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “A Failing Report Card on Worker Health and Safety                                                   ”
  1. Great summary and thank you for articulating these work tragedies. Unfortunately, occupational health doesn’t get the much needed public health attention it deserves. In many occupations, new and immigrant workers have the highest fatality rates, an area which needs addressing, but often not discussed. Thanks again!

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