OSHA Report Documents Costs Of Job Injuries, Declining Workers Comp

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

OSHA Report Documents Costs Of Job Injuries, Declining Workers Comp

Saying “statistics are people with the tears washed off,” a new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report on job injuries and illnesses documents their costs and shines the spotlight on the declining role of workers' comp in paying for them and in aiding injured and ill workers.

But Adding Inequality To Injury: The Costs Of Failing To Protect Workers On The Job goes far beyond the numbers -- more than 4,000 dead every year, 3 million injured and $200 billion in medical bills and lost wages combined -- to spotlight the human toll such injuries take on workers and their families.

It gave the example of a Virginia worker, Robert, who worked for a foam insulation manufacturer until the day he "climbed on a foam grinder to clean out some material and the manager turned on the machine, " his wife, Jessica, wrote to President Barack Obama.

"His right foot was pulled and mangled by the machine.  Robert has had multiple surgeries, and must wear a special boot to walk," OSHA said.  The family ran out of money due to inadequate workers' comp and had to move to a shelter until "they found a new apartment, mold-ridden and infested with fleas.

“My husband lives with constant chronic pain every day and he tosses and turns throughout the night," Jessica wrote. "As soon as he wakes up, he has to put on this ‘boot’ in order to do anything.  This boot stays on his foot all day long because he is unable to walk without it on.

"Before being injured my husband played basketball or football every single day and he ran and played outside with our two toddler sons.  He was a weight lifter and a fisherman and a hunter, these are all things he can no longer partake in due to his injuries from work.

"One of our sons took off towards the road, running full speed one day and I was seven months pregnant and all my husband could do was yell at me and watch from his wheelchair as I scurried as fast as possible to grab my son before he went into the road.  His life the way he lived it was robbed from him and he will never be the same...We are struggling financially so badly because of this ‘accident’ and the negative effect it has had on his pay.

“We wish to have answers to why there are so many laws in Virginia to protect the employers, when in cases like this, if the employer had done THEIR job enforcing OSHA regulations, accidents like the one my husband was involved in would never happen.”

Robert, unfortunately, is typical, the OSHA report says.  The average injured worker who can come back to work after being hurt earns $3,100 less per year in the decade after the injury than in the decade before, the agency found.

And the workers and their families and their insurers bear half of the costs of job injuries, the report adds.  Private insurance pays another 13 percent, and federal programs -- principally Medicare and Medicaid -- account for 16 percent.  That means workers' comp covers only 21 percent of the costs of workers' injuries.

If they can get it, the report adds.

"State legislatures and courts have made it increasingly difficult for injured workers to receive the payments for lost wages and medical expenses that they deserve." Fewer than half of Massachusetts workers who suffered on-the-job amputations got workers' comp, as did fewer than one-third of California workers with amputations and fewer than one-third of California workers suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve injury."

And the workers' comp system has become so bad for workers that fewer than 40 percent of injured and ill workers who could receive benefits even apply for them, OSHA says.  Many others can't apply because they're toiling for joint employers -- who don't take responsibility for safety conditions -- or employers misclassify the workers as "independent contractors" and thus evade paying workers comp.  Or they're temps.

As a result, for example, 37.5 percent of Texas construction workers were "independent contractors."  So were 35.5 percent in North Carolina and 16 percent in Florida.  That's 500,000 workers in those three states alone, OSHA said.   

"While this system proves inadequate for the average worker, the workers’ compensation system performs even more poorly for low-wage workers.  Many face additional barriers to filing, including even greater job insecurity, lack of knowledge about their rights, or a limited command of English," the report adds.

"OSHA staff members encountered many injured immigrant workers who have not filed for workers’ compensation out of fear of losing their jobs. These barriers are documented in numerous surveys of low-wage and immigrant workers who report being injured on the job and not filing workers’ compensation claims."

Workers with job-related illnesses do even worse, as "most cases of work-related chronic disease are never diagnosed as work-related. When a linkage is made, the diagnosis generally comes long after employment ends. Even when a proper diagnosis is made, a worker who is eligible for benefits under Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans’ Benefits or private insurers is more likely to take that route, and avoid the barriers to obtaining benefits through the workers’ compensation system."

OSHA had several recommendations for cutting the toll and the costs of on-the-job injuries and illnesses.  Its #1 goal, and the most-effective, the report says, is prevention: Employers must stop or fix the conditions that cause illnesses and injuries in the first place.

"Many employers strive to prevent all injuries and illnesses while others do not," it says. 

Using nursing homes as an example, it says the overall on-the-job injury rate in the industry -- which OSHA singled out for special targeting, along with construction -- is 5.2 injuries per 100 workers. While the best quarter of U.S. nursing homes had injury rates of 0.8 per 100 workers, the worst quarter of them saw seven of every 100 workers injured on the job.

"It is (also) vitally important that the state-based workers’ compensation systems take steps to eliminate roadblocks that prevent workers with compensable injuries or illnesses from receiving the full benefits, including adequate wage-replacement payments and full coverage for medical expenses, to which they are entitled," OSHA recommends.

"Currently, workers with work-related injuries or illnesses who are successful in claiming workers’ compensation receive only a small portion of the true costs of their injury or illness, and many others who are entitled to benefits receive no workers’ compensation benefits at all. Without ending this unfair and unwarranted income loss, these workers will never be able to catch up to the income level they maintained before their injury or illness."

Without the changes, the problem will worsen, OSHA predicts. "By forcing the costs of injury and illness onto workers, families and the taxpayer, unsafe employers have fewer incen-tives to eliminate workplace hazards and actually prevent injuries and illnesses from occurring.  Under this broken system, these workers, their families and the tax-payer subsidize unsafe employers, increasing the likelihood that even more workers will be injured or made sick."

"Despite a more-than-40-year-old legal obligation to provide safe workplaces, the unwillingness of many employers to prevent millions of work injuries and illnesses each year, and the failure of the broken workers’ compensation system to ensure that workers do not bear the costs of their injuries and illnesses, are truly adding inequality to injury," OSHA concludes.