On Research

The "On Research" blog has been discontinued, but Safety+Health now publishes Q&As with Journal of Safety Research contributors under that name.

Data has its limits

July 8, 2013

If you think about it, research is only as good as the data behind it. And a recent study from NIOSH raises questions about the accuracy of occupational injury and illness data based on emergency department records.

Researchers looked at data from 3,881 work-related emergency department visits from 2003 to 2006, and found that 40 percent were expected to be paid for by private insurance, Medicaid, Medicare or the worker – not workers’ compensation. The percentage increased every year, and certain factors were associated with reduced likelihood of the visit being paid for by workers’ comp. Those included the worker being black, living in the South, going to a for-profit hospital or being treated for an occupational illness.

What that means, lead author Matthew Groenewold told me, is that using workers’ comp claims as a measure for the work-relatedness of injuries and illnesses “not only underestimates the amount of occupational injuries and illnesses, but does it in ways that are sort of systematically biased like in terms of race or region.”

The findings have important implications for occupational and public health researchers, and underscore the lack of complete data on workplace injuries and illnesses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses is one source of such data, but Groenewold noted that it’s dependent on employer reporting. As he put it, “All of the different data sets or types of data that can be used to try to estimate the burden of occupational illnesses or injuries have some substantial limitations.”

The solution, in Groenewold’s view, is to include occupational variables in electronic health records and national health surveys. He said job title, industry and – in the case of an injury – the work-relatedness should be asked about similarly to other demographic descriptors such as age and race. Makes sense to me given that your job – just like your age or race – can significantly impact your risk for certain health outcomes.

The opinions expressed in "Research Spotlight" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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