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Injuries and illnesses in the workplace, 1990.

Injuries and illnesses in the workplace, 1990 Martin E. Personick and Ethel C. Jackson

Although occupational injuries continue to dominate safety and health statistics, there has been a dramatic rise recently in the number of occupational illnesses reported in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses.1 The 1990 survey of private employers reported 331,600 new illness cases, nearly triple the 1985 total.' (See table

1.) The higher illness total generally reflects the growing recognition and reporting by physicians and employers of repetitive trauma disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and other motion-related illnesses, usually involving the hand, wrist, elbow, or shoulder.[3]

The 1990 survey reported 185,400 new illness cases as "disorders associated with repeated trauma." This number was five times the 37,000 cases reported in 1985. Over the 1985-90 survey periods, repeated traumas increased both in number and as a percent of total illnesses reported-from 29 percent in 1985 to 56 percent in 1990. (See table 1.) To date, repeated traumas have been reported largely in manufacturing industries, especially where assemblyline work predominates.[4]

Manufacturing accounted for nearly seven-eighths of all reported repeated trauma disorders in 1990 (about 160,000 out of 185,400 cases). This translates into 87 repeated trauma cases per 10,000 manufacturing workers, almost four times higher than the corresponding figure (24 cases per 10,000 employees) for private industry.[5] Industry rates for repeated traumas, such as those in meat products and motor vehicles and equipment, can be several times higher than the all-manufacturing average. (See table 2.)

Other survey findings

The Bureau's annual survey found that although the number of work-related illness cases has risen sharply in recent years, occupational injuries accounted for about 95 percent of the 6.8 million occupational injuries and illnesses reported in 1990. At 6.4 million cases, job-related injuries were reported in the survey if they resulted in death, loss of consciousness, restricted work activity, transfer to another job, or medical treatment beyond first aid. Nearly half (3.0 million) of the injury cases resulted in lost workdays, assignment of light duties, or restrictions in regular work activity.

Occupational injuries we in a wide variety of industries and workplaces. Of the 3.0 million lost worktime injuries in 1990, one-third were reported in manufacturing, one-fourth in wholesale and retail trade, one-fifth in services industries, and one-tenth both in construction and iD the transportation sector. Ten major groups of industries reported at least 100,000 lost workday injuries: health services, special trades construction contractors, food products manufacturing, eating and drinking places, trucking and warehousing, transportation equipment manufacturing, retail food stores, nondurable goods wholesaling, durable goods wholesaling, and fabricated metal products. Together, these major groups accounted for nearly one-half of the lost workday injury cases reported nationwide.

In its annual surveys, the Bureau studies disabling (lost worktime) injuries separately for several hundred individual industries, developing measures of how frequently they occur and how many workdays are lost or restricted.6 During 1990, the industries with the 10 highest incidence rates for injuries involving lost workdays were in manufacturing. The top three rates were reported for shipbuilding and repairing (18 lost workday cases per 100 full-time workers), special product sawmills (14 cases per 100 workers), and meatpacking plants (13 cases per 100 workers); by comparison, the all-manufacturing rate was about 5 lost workday injuries per 100 full-time workers, and the private industry rate was about 4 lost workday injuries per 100 workers.'

Although manufacturing workers commonly sustain disabling injuries, they typically return to their regular jobs as quickly as do workers in most other industries. The 1990 survey shows, for example, that the average number of lost or restricted workdays per lost workday injury was the same in all manufacturing as in private industry as a whole-about 20 days. The industry with the highest such average, moreover, was longshoring and other services incidental to water transportation (36 lost workdays per lost workday injury), well ahead of the corresponding figure (23 days) for shipbuilding and repairing, the industry with the highest rate of lost workday injuries.8

In addition to illnesses and injuries, the Bureau reports annually on work-related fatalities. Because these incidents are difficult to measure in an establishment sample survey, it appears that the Bureau's count of fatalities in private industry establishments with at least 11 employees-2,900 in 1990is substantially understated. Certain fatality patterns, however, recur from one survey to the next. For example, the vast majority of reported workplace deaths occurred in construction, manufacturing, and transportation and public utilities, and the leading fatal circumstances were over-the-road motor vehicle incidents.

A COMPREHENSIVE REPORT on the survey, Occupational Injuries and Illnesses in the United States by Industry, 1990, Bulletin 2399, may be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, or from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Publication Sales Center, P.O. Box 2145, Chicago, IL 60690. The bulletin provides additional information on workplace injuries and illnesses by detailed industry level and relative standard errors of the survey estimates.


1 Occupational injury and illness data reported in the annual survey are based on records that employers maintain under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Excluded from the Act's scope were workplaces covered by other Federal safety and health laws. Thus, occupational injuries and illnesses for coal, metal and nonmetal mining, and railroad activities were provided to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration, respectively.

The survey excludes the self employed; farmers with fewer than 11 employees; private households; and employees in Federal, State, and local government agencies.

2 An occupational injury results from a work event or exposure involving a single incident in the work environment. In contrast, an occupational illness is any abnormal condition or disorder, other than one resulting from an occupational injury, caused by exposure to environmental factors associated with employment. It includes acute and chronic illnesses and diseases which may result from inhalation, absorption, ingestion, or direct contact.

The majority of the reported illnesses are those which relate to workplace activity (for example, contact dermatitis or carpal tunnel syndrome) and, therefore, are relatively easy to identify. In contrast, some conditions, for example, long-term latent illnesses resulting from exposure to cancer-causing agents, often are difficult to relate to the workplace and are not adequately recognized and reported. These long-term latent illnesses are believed to be understated in the survey's illness measures.

3 Disorders associated with repeated trauma, for example, conditions due to repeated motion, pressure, or vibration, is one of seven BLS categories used to classify occupational illnesses. Examples of conditions in this category include: carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and noise-induced hearing loss. The other six illness categories for which separate data are available in the survey bulletin include skin diseases or disorders; dust diseases of the lungs (such as asbestosis); respiratory conditions caused by exposure to chemicals and other toxic agents; poisoning; heatstroke and other disorders caused by physical agents (such as radiation); and "all other" occupational illnesses, including malignant and benign tumors.

4. For a detailed account of one such industry, see Martin E. Personick and Katherine Taylor-Shirley, Profiles in safety and health: occupational hazards of meatpacking," Monthly Labor Review, January 1989, pp. 3-9.

5 The number of disorders associated with repeated trauma per 10,000 full-time equivalent workers was calculated as:

(N/EH) x 20,000,000 where,

N = number of disorders associated with repeated trauma,

EH = total hours worked by all employees during the calendar year, and

20,000,000 = base for 10,000 full-time workers (working 40 how-s per week, 50 weeks per year).

6. The number of days away from work or days of restricted work activity does not include the day of injury or onset of illness or any days on which the employee would not have worked even if able to work.

7. The number of injury cases involving lost workdays per 100 full-time workers was calculated as:

(N/EH) x 200,000 where

N = number of lost workday injuries,

EH = total hours worked by all employees during the calendar year, and

200,000 = base for 100 full-time equivalent workers (working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year).

8 Average lost workdays per lost workday case can be calculated for any industry published in the BLS survey bulletin by dividing the rate for lost workdays by the lost workday case rate. Because of rounding, such averages may differ slightly from those derived by Bureau staff in dividing the actual number of lost workdays by the number of lost workday cases.
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Author:Personick, Martin E.; Jackson, Ethel C.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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