Covid-19 Takes Over As Top Source of Workplace Injury

workplace injury
Dr Michelle Chester from Northwell Health prepares to administer a Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park on Dec. 14, 2020. (REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid)

The term nonfatal workplace injuries brings to mind slips and falls, accidents involving machines, construction workers hurt on the job, and office workers facing carpal tunnel syndrome. Truck and delivery drivers get into crashes and police officers face all sorts of risks. And these dangers all remain very real.

But lately, at least when it comes to statistics, the pandemic has become New York State’s and the nation’s biggest source of nonfatal workplace injury, according to data. Healthcare workers, widely dubbed heroes, are among the hardest hit, as hospitals among others work to replace workers at least temporarily unable to go to work. 

Covid-19 was recorded as the source of a workplace injury “when a worker was infected as a result of performing their work-related duties” and met other recordkeeping criteria, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As many industries shifted to telecommuting, industries such as healthcare, where hands-on work remains crucial, experienced a direct impact from the pandemic in terms of workplace injuries.

Bruce Bergman, a regional economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, refers to the “Covid-19 effect” as the single biggest source of workplace injury for 2020, the most recent data available and analyzed.

“The tremendous rise in illness cases speaks to that,” Bergman said of respiratory illness contracted at work due to Covid-19. “And many of these cases occurred in healthcare.”

Private industry employers reported 129,000 nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in New York State in 2020 or 2.2 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers, compared to 2.7 nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Chief Regional Economist Martin Kohli said the state is among 11 states and the District of Columbia with rates “significantly lower than the national rate.” He said two “supersectors,” education and health services and trade, transportation and utilities, accounted for 45 percent of private industry employment and 68 percent of occupational injuries and illnesses.

Of the nearly 130,000 workplace injuries and illnesses statewide in in 2020, 90,100 in New York’s private sector were “of a more severe nature,” resulting in days away from work, job transfer, or restrictions. 

“Given the continuing presence of Covid and new variants that arise, hospital resources (have) remained strained, especially the workforce,” the Suburban Hospital Alliance of New York State said in a statement.

Respiratory illnesses in hospitals, for instance, accounted for almost half of all work-related illnesses in the state in 2020, Bergman said. That was 15,300 of 32,300 or 47% or work-related illnesses in 2020, up from 100 of 7,100 in 2019 or only 1.4%.

“Correctional facilities and nursing and residential care facilities rank among the top,” Bergman added of other industries facing a big Covid-19 effect.

Continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facility workers also were impacted, as well as ambulances and veterinary services. And retail felt the pandemic, as cases hit brick-and-mortar stores.

“In retail trade, it looks like there were six times as many respiratory cases in 2020 as in 2019,” Bergman said of New York.

Skiing facilities, possibly no surprise, had among the highest incidence rates of nonfatal occupational injuries. Skiing may take place outdoors, but it’s also a winter sport that involves close quarters when workers aren’t on the slopes.

Many other sources of workplace injury remain, from slips and falls to fires and automobile collisions. Overexertion, repetitive motion injuries, violence, and exposure to harmful substances all lead to injury, albeit on far smaller scales than the pandemic.

One epidemic doesn’t mean the end of another as opiates continue to take their toll. Unintentional overdoses accounted for 388 workplace deaths nationwide in 2020, although opiates remain a far greater danger overall.

The data included when injuries occurred, when that was possible to ascertain. What’s the most dangerous time of day? More injuries are reported in the morning from 8 a.m. to noon than other times, with Wednesday topping the list, although barely ahead of Thursday.

How does all of this compare to previous years? The numbers overall didn’t spike from the prior year, possibly because the workplace has been changing with more employees working remotely. 

“New York’s rate of total cases among private sector employers was unchanged from 2019,” Bergman said.

He added that nationwide “healthcare is the standout,” but in the private sector retail trade and professional and business services each had over 20,000 cases in 2020.

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