Washington Update

Washington Update: Injury costs shifting to workers, OSHA report claims

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Employers are failing to protect workers from injuries, and workers who are injured bear the financial costs of those injuries due to a “broken” workers’ compensation system.

This is the conclusion of a March 4 OSHA report, Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job. At least 3 million workers are injured each year – a figure OSHA suggests is only a fraction of the true injury total – and about 4,500 workers die from injuries every year, the report states. In addition, an estimated 50,000 die from illnesses stemming from exposure to various hazardous materials, including asbestos and silica.

Workers who are injured find themselves in a tough spot. On top of dealing with the psychological aspect of being injured or ill, these workers earn less money. Many injured workers may not even receive workers’ comp: OSHA cites studies that have found fewer than 40 percent of eligible workers apply for benefits. As a result, many injured workers are picking up the tab.

According to the OSHA report, workers’ comp payments cover less than one-quarter of lost wages and medical costs related to occupational injuries or illnesses. Families, private health insurance and taxpayers pay the rest.

The cost shift to employees is the result of several states making changes to their workers’ comp system. Because employers now are paying less for workers’ comp, they have less incentive to mitigate workplace hazards that could lead to injuries or illnesses, OSHA states. As a result, the agency alleges, workers are increasingly more likely to be injured on the job.

“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,” the report states.

The solution, OSHA says, is to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses from occurring in the first place. But where the agency report succeeds in detailing the problem, it falls short in providing many specifics regarding a solution, some stakeholders claim.

One-sided report?

“They’re connecting dots and trying to make an argument that this is a bad thing, and we agree,” Marc Freedman said of worker injuries. “The question that’s important is ‘Does this report really create any type of new suggestions or paths forward?’ And that’s where I think it comes up short.”

As the executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Freedman agrees that more can be done to improve workplace safety. Although he acknowledged that some employers don’t take seriously their obligations to protect workers, Freedman called OSHA’s report “one-sided” in its conclusions about employers.

He accused OSHA of “seizing on the negatives” while ignoring what employers have done right in protecting workers (which, Freedman admitted, can be hard to quantify).

“It’s a rather broad, sweeping indictment that everything is the employer’s fault,” Freedman said. “Employers could provide all the training and equipment and incentives, and at the end of the day it’s not up to them if the employee works safely.”

Another issue is OSHA’s attempt to delve into an area in which it has no authority, he added. Workers’ comp is run entirely by individual states, and OSHA has no say on those systems.

Despite OSHA’s lack of authority in this area, an agency spokesperson said it is “undeniable” that workers’ comp programs play a role in the conversation about worker injuries.

OSHA’s goal in writing and releasing the report is to raise awareness about the costs of worker injuries and illnesses. “The burden placed on workers and their families is immense, and they deserve to have their voices heard,” the spokesperson said.

In addition to raising awareness, OSHA wants to re-emphasize the importance of safety and health in the workplace, and that preventing incidents is the best way to end the inequality highlighted in the report, the spokesperson stated. The report, she said, was released to get the message out to employers, workers and stakeholders.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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