OSHA Highlights Financial, Social Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses

A new OSHA report issued last month describes the financial and social costs of occupational injuries and illnesses and how they contribute to income inequality in the U.S. The report, “Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job,” is available as a P​DF on OSHA’s website. 

According to OSHA, injured workers, their families, and taxpayer-supported programs pay most of the costs associated with workplace injuries, including lost income and medical care. Changes in state-based workers’ compensation insurance programs have made it difficult for workers with compensable injuries or illnesses to receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. OSHA notes that employers also bear responsibility for this shift in cost: employers now provide only about 20 percent of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries and illnesses through workers’ compensation.

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The agency cites changes in the structure of employment relationships in the U.S.—the misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors and the increased use of temporary workers, for example—as factors that exacerbate the incidence and consequences of workplace injuries and illnesses. Employers who misclassify wage employees as independent contractors avoid paying workers’ compensation premiums and, because OSHA law does not cover the self-employed, are more likely to ignore the agency’s requirement to provide a safe workplace. 

Several factors add to temporary workers’ risk of work injuries. They often lack adequate safety training and are likely unfamiliar with specific hazards in new workplaces. Temporary workers employed through staffing agencies are typically insured not by their host employer, but by their staffing agency. This arrangement means that host employers bear no financial responsibility for temporary workers’ injuries. OSHA states that these workers are often hesitant to report injuries or claim compensation due to concerns that they will not be assigned additional work, or because they are confused about who is responsible: the staffing agency or their host employer. 
Another trend that presents a challenge to worker health, especially in the construction industry, is the increased presence of employees of multiple employers working at the same work site. If multiple employers with employees at one location do not collaborate to protect them, all workers at a site may be at a higher risk of injury, the report states.
“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.
These changes to the structure of work in the U.S. are part of a larger shift in work force demographics: the work force is becoming older and more diverse, and it’s common for workers to have multiple careers and employers throughout their lives. Still others are being hired into non-traditional work environments. AIHA’s Content Portfolio Management Team has identified these changing work force demographics as one of the association’s priorities in the coming years.
The agency cites changes in the structure of employment relationships in the U.S. as factors that exacerbate the incidence and consequences of workplace injuries and illnesses.