U.S. Work-Related Injuries, Illnesses Cost $250 Billion Annually: Study

The study suggests that the U.S. should place greater emphasis on reducing work-related injury and illnesses, especially since the costs have risen by more than $33 billion (inflation adjusted) since a 1992 analysis, the author said.

A UC Davis researcher has estimated the national annual price tag of occupational injuries and illnesses at $250 billion. This figure is $31 billion more than the direct and indirect costs of all cancer, $76 billion more than diabetes, and $187 billion more than strokes.

The study suggests that the U.S. should place greater emphasis on reducing work-related injury and illnesses, especially since the costs have risen by more than $33 billion (inflation adjusted) since a 1992 analysis, the author said.

"It's unfortunate that occupational health doesn't get the attention it deserves," said J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis and author of the study. "The costs are enormous and continue to grow. And the potential for health risks are high, given that most people between the ages 22 to 65 spend 40 percent of their waking hours at work."

Published in the December issue of the Milbank Quarterly: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Population Health and Health Policy, the study is based on Leigh's evaluation of more than 40 datasets from sources that track work-related injuries and illnesses as well as their direct medical and indirect productivity costs.

In generating the estimate, Leigh gathered 2007 data on occupational injuries and illnesses and their costs for U.S. civilian workers, including agricultural and self-employed workers.

Injury and disease data came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available epidemiological research on the percentages of diseases—such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer—that can be attributed to occupational exposures was also considered. Leigh accounted for underreported illnesses and injuries using estimates based on reporting to BLS and workers' compensation systems.

Cost data came from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project and the National Academy of Social Insurance. Total costs were calculated by multiplying the number of cases of occupational injury or illness by the average cost per case.

The study estimates that in 2007 there were:

  • 8,564,600 fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries, which cost $192 billion
  • 516,100 fatal and non-fatal work-related illnesses, which cost $58 billion

The study also estimates 59,102 combined deaths from occupational injuries and diseases, which is higher than all deaths from motor vehicle crashes (43,945), breast cancer (40,970), or prostate cancer (29,093) in the same year.

Leigh noted in the study that workers' compensation premiums do not currently account for these figures. In fact, less than 25 percent of the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses are covered by workers' compensation. As a result, many occupational health issues go unresolved, and the bulk of the costs are absorbed by employer-provided medical insurance and Medicare and Medicaid, Leigh said.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), also highlights how greater attention to workplace safety and health could have broad economic benefits.

"In the four decades since the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act were signed, there has been significant improvement in the prevention of work-related injuries and illnesses," said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. "However, much work lies ahead of us, and a study such as this one is important for highlighting the economic burden of occupational illness. Gaining a better understanding of the burden helps NIOSH and our partners make the case that preventing work-related injuries and illnesses is part of a wise national strategy for economic recovery and growth. Such data also may inform innovative approaches for building or enhancing corporate safety and health cultures."

A copy of the study -- "Economic Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States" -- can be downloaded at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0009.2011.00648.x/full.

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