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Recuperation time for work injuries, 1987-91.

Martin E. Personick and Ethel C. Jackson

Although the frequency of serious jobrelated injuries and illnesses was little changed since 1987, the severity of such disabilities has edged steadily upward during the past 5 years, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses.[1] The surveys for 1987 through 1991 each reported one injury or illness involving time away from regular job duties for about every 25 full-time workers in private industry.[2] However, during that time period, disabling injuries and illnesses have required, on average, slightly longer periods of recuperation each year. As a result, the average number of lost workdays per lost workday case has increased from 18 days in 1987 to 22 days in 1991. (See table 1 .)

This report provides summary findings from the most recent injury and illness surveys and briefly describes the expansion of the 1992 and future surveys to collect more detailed information on the severity of work disabilities, such as the characteristics of the disabled worker and the disability itself.

Data for 1991

Why zero in on job-related disabilities? Because personal and financial costs associated with work disabilities are staggering: about 3 million cases involving more than 60 million lost workdays occur each year; billions of dollars in workers' compensation are expended to help defray wages and medical expenses; and billions more are associated with uninsured work loss stemming from such disabilities.3 In recent years, each 1day increase in the average number of lost workdays per case has translated into about 3 million lost workdays per year.

It is important to measure both the frequency and the severity of work disabilities in evaluating workplace safety and health. A look at the 1991 data by size of firm and industry division explains why. Grouped by work force size, the smallest firms (1-19 workers) and the largest firms (2,500 workers or more) rank highest in average recuperation time (24 days per disability); both groups' rate of disability cases, however, fell below the comparable rate of most other size groups. Similarly, the manufacturing and finance industry divisions have the same average recuperation time as that for all private industry (22 days), but the disability case rate (5.6 per 100 full-time workers) for manufacturing is well above the private industry rate (3.9), while the finance industry's rate (1.1) is well below.[4]

Longer recuperation periods were reported in 1991 than in 1987 for all industry divisions except mining. (See table 2.) However, the mining industry continued to report the longest recuperation time of any industry division; 7 days per case more than the 1991 national average of 22 days. Interestingly, agriculture, forestry, and fishing were among the industries that reported the shortest recuperation times during the 5-year span, although the frequency of work disabilities in those industries consistently exceeded the private industry rate. Additional comparisons of the frequency and severity of work injuries and illnesses for several hundred detailed industries are available in the Bureau's comprehensive reports on annual surveys.5

Revamped survey

Prior to 1992, the annual surveys identified which industries had work disabilities requiring relatively long periods of recuperation, but these surveys did not name or describe the disability, how it occurred, the occupation of the injured/ ill worker, and other pertinent worker characteristics (gender and age, for example). The 1992 survey, and those that follow, will identify the "what, how, and who" for each reported injury and illness involving at least 1 day away from work (beyond the day of injury or onset of illness).[6]

The expanded survey also will record the number of lost workdays for each reported disability case, improving on the past survey practice of collecting the total lost workdays in an establishment. The new practice will enable analysts to tabulate the average time away from regular work duties while workers recuperate from various disabling conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or fractures, and worktime lost due to falls, motor vehicle accidents, or other disabling events.

New data on the characteristics of the injury and illness and duration of disability, in combination, can shed some light on why certain industries had workers with disabilities requiting comparatively lengthy recuperation periods. One reason might be that certain industries have a disproportionately large number of disabilities in categories that prove to be associated with lengthy periods of recuperation, such as repetitive-motion illnesses and fractures. Another explanation might be that an industry's workers take much longer to recuperate from certain disabilities, say sprains and strains, than do workers sustaining similar disabling conditions in most other industries. Such findings might encourage a separate study of the circumstances surrounding that industry's unusual safety and health risks, uncovering, for example, heavy manual lifting assignments that might be mechanized or handled by two workers rather than one.

Besides industry studies, the expanded survey might lead to special profiles and studies of severe injuries and illnesses sustained by particular occupational groupings, such as nurses and heavy equipment operators, as well as indepth analyses of newly emerging health problems, such as hand and wrist disorders relating to repeated, forceful motions on the job. Also, the most severe cases, perhaps defined as all those requiting recuperations of 30 days or more, can be analyzed now that the expanded survey collects duration of disability for individual cases.

IN SUMMARY, the expanded portion of the BLS Federal/State survey (results to be released first half 1994) will offer enhanced opportunities to analyze work hazards and exposures, especially those that result in comparatively large amounts of lost worktime. Improving knowledge of severe injuries and illnesses can help the safety and health community formulate and evaluate specific solutions to prevent most work disabilities and lessen the severity of those that do occur. Such solutions will require, from time to time, specially funded analyses and studies that branch out from and extend basic survey findings.


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 were provided to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, and railroad activities were provided by the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration.

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

2 "Time away from regular job duties" includes cases involving days away from work, or days assigned to restricted work duties/schedules, or both.

The count of days lost or restricted for a given case continues until the disabled worker resumes regular job duties, is permanently reassigned to another job, or a final determination is made that the employee is totally disabled. This approach conforms to the latest recordkeeping guidelines for work-related injuries and illnesses developed for employers covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 by the U.S. Department of Labor. State workers' compensation systems, in contrast, commonly follow guidelines that differ from the recordkeeping of the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in determining which cases should be filed and the duration of those disabling cases. In Michigan, for example, a worker disabled on the job initially is eligible for workers' compensation if absent from work for more than 7 days after the date of injury or onset of illness (excluding the day of the incident and Sunday). The "duration" of such cases coincides with the duration of workers' compensation, which might span several years and relate to recutting episodes of the initial disability. Federal OSHA guidelines, in contrast, include all cases involving 1 day away from work or more, beyond the day of injury or onset of illness. And the duration of such a case corresponds to the employer's estimate of the number of workdays lost or restricted due to that single incident, regardless of State workers' compensation regulations.

For a recent study on the duration of workers' compensation as a measure of missed workdays, see Arthur Oleinick and others, "Current methods of estimating severity for occupational injuries and illnesses: data from the 1986 Michigan comprehensive compensable injury and illness database," American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1993, vol. 23, pp. 231-52.

3 For estimates on the cost of work accidents, see Accident Facts, 1991 Edition (Chicago, National Safety Council, 1991), pp. 2 and 35.

4Incidence rates represent the number of injuries and illnesses or lost workdays per 100 fulltime workers and were calculated as: (N/EH) x 200,000 where:
 N = number of injuries and illnesses or
 number of lost workdays,
 EH = total hours worked by all employees
 during the calendar year, and
 200,000 = base for 100 equivalent full-time
 workers (working 40 hours per
 week, 50 weeks per year).

5 The latest report, Occupational Injuries and Illnesses in the United States by Industry, 1991, Bulletin 2424 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1993) can be purchased in late spring 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.

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.

6 To conserve resources, the expanded information relates only to cases involving days away from work, with or without additional days of restricted work activity. Excluded are cases involving restricted work activity only, which were slightly less than one-fifth of all reported lost workday cases in 1991. Additionally, to minimize reporting burden on respondents, those with more than 20 disability cases in 1992 were instructed on how to select which of those cases require detailed reporting for the survey.
COPYRIGHT 1993 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Author:Personick, Martin E.; Jackson, Ethel C.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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