“Workers who get hurt on the job suffer physical pain that can affect them for months, years or in some cases, stick with them for the rest of their lives,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Even after an on-the-job injury heals, emotional and financial difficulties can linger. That’s why preventing these injuries is such a large part of the mission at the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America.”
The total cost of workplace injuries in the U.S. is staggering. In 2014, the National Safety Council estimated the cost at $198 billion a year. For comparison, the annual cost of diabetes – a condition affecting 29 million in the U.S. – is $245 billion.
A recent OSHA report, “Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job,” examines the financial and emotional toll that workers and their families often face after an occupational injury.
The report includes a case study that found workers in New Mexico earned 15 percent less in the 10 years following an injury. Even after workers’ compensation benefits, workers lost out on an average of almost $31,000. That’s partially because workers’ compensation benefits only pay about two-thirds of normal weekly wages on average (the exact amount varies from state to state).
Understanding the financial hardship that injuries cause also means understanding the current pitfalls of the U.S. workers’ compensation system. Articles like ProPublica’s “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp” detail how over the last ten years, states have cut financial assistance for workers, made it harder for workers to get the aid they deserve and shifted the cost of paying for injuries to the general public.
As the chart here shows, although employers face a significant portion of injury costs, the largest piece is paid by employees and their families. Costly medical bills and treatment for chronic conditions can destroy savings and drag middle-class families into poverty. As the authors of the Adding Inequality to Injury report put it, “work injuries hamper the ability of many working families to realize the American Dream.”
Another issue that’s not often mentioned is the toll that on-the-job injuries have on a worker’s family. A joint study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Northern Kentucky University found that family members of injured workers had 34 percent more fractures, sprains, joint dislocations and other musculoskeletal disorders in the three months following the occupational injury. These injuries could occur when a spouse or child helps support a much larger, injured relative during a move to the dinner table, or when children must pitch in doing additional chores like carrying heavy groceries or moving furniture.
In addition to financial issues, injuries create emotional strain on workers and their families. Lost wages can increase stress at home and time away from work can strain relationships with coworkers and supervisors. Being out of work for an extended time can affect a worker’s self-esteem and even lead to mental health problems such as depression.
“The best way to protect workers from the physical, financial and emotional harm caused by on-the-job injuries is to be proactive and prevent them from occurring in the first place,” says O’Sullivan. “The Laborers’ International Union of North America, the LHSFNA and other LIUNA affiliates are committed to making this a reality by working hand in hand with signatory contractors who share the same goals.”
Working to reverse the erosion of the workers’ compensation system would also go a long way towards reducing the burdens that injured workers face. Until that happens, injured workers and their families will remain at risk and responsible employers and taxpayers will continue to pay more than their fair share to subsidize unsafe employers who refuse to follow the rules.