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An Abnormal Year for Injury and Illness Data

In most years, the annual release of injury and illness data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t bring many significant changes. The total number of injuries, injury rate and days away from work tends to stay fairly consistent from year to year. At first glance, that appears to be the case for 2020 as well, with the total number of nonfatal injuries and illnesses going from 2.8 million in 2019 to 2.7 million in 2020.

However, when we look beyond this total at the data below, there are big shifts from the year prior. Almost all of them can be directly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. So how exactly did the pandemic and the widespread closure of many businesses affect workers in 2020?

Summary of 2020 Injury and Illness Data

  • Combined injuries and illnesses went down slightly, yet the share of injuries vs. illnesses shifted dramatically. Injuries went from 2.7 million in 2019 to 2.1 million in 2020, a decrease of 23 percent. Meanwhile, illnesses quadrupled from 127,000 to almost 555,000.
  • These same changes were consistent for injury and illness rates per 100 full-time workers. The injury rate dropped 15 percent, from 2.6 in 2019 to 2.2 in 2020. The illness rate soared 350 percent, from 12.4 to 55.9.
  • The average number of days away from work jumped from 8 to 12. COVID-19 was responsible for roughly one third of all incidents involving days away from work. (BLS data doesn’t have a specific reporting code for COVID-19. Instead, virtually all of the illnesses were reported in two related categories: “respiratory illness” and “other diseases due to viruses not elsewhere classified.”)

In short, illnesses made up only about five percent of all nonfatal incidents reported by employers in 2019. In 2020, the share of illnesses jumped to 21 percent of all incidents.

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

“Many illnesses caused by exposures in the workplace don’t show up until years later, so it’s often difficult to connect the two and get an accurate picture of the true toll on workers,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “With COVID-19, symptoms that show up quickly and the wide availability of testing allowed cases to be confirmed and recorded. These factors also allowed LIUNA signatory contractors to respond quickly and limit the number of COVID-19 cases in the construction industry.”

Another broad change included the industries where these incidents were occurring. From 2019 to 2020, the total number of injuries and illnesses decreased in every industry except the health care and social assistance sectors. These two groups of workers bore the brunt of workplace COVID-19 infections, accounting for 74 percent of all cases.

In past years, injury and illness numbers for most age groups remained flat or declined, with more incidents among workers age 55 and older. That trend ended in 2020. All age groups saw a jump in the number of days away from work, showing the impact of COVID-19 across all working adults.

Injuries and Illnesses in Construction

In construction, total injuries and illnesses decreased 13 percent to 174,000, the lowest total since 2014. The combined injury-illness rate also dropped, from 2.8 to 2.5.

Image courtesy of LIUNA Local 872

Many construction workers were clearly affected by COVID-19, as the number of reported illnesses spiked from 600 in 2019 to 8,700 in 2020. Still, injuries continued to make up the vast majority of reported incidents, with 95 percent of incidents being injuries and only five percent being illnesses.

When construction workers did get hurt on the job, it was largely due to the same causes as in previous years. Struck-by incidents, slips, trips and falls on the job, overexertion and repetitive motion injuries and exposure to harmful substances remained the most common injuries suffered by construction workers. Sprain and strain injuries continued to make up 25 percent of all days away from work, with fractures, cuts and lacerations making up another 25 percent.

These common injuries are a reminder that construction is a physically demanding and potentially hazardous job no matter how many hours workers are putting in. Within the industry, COVID-19 led to an increased focus on sanitary work conditions and adequate ventilation as well as education about respiratory protection. Yet even during the pandemic, other jobsite hazards were still present on a daily basis.

The LHSFNA can assist LIUNA signatory contractors with improving their safety and health programs to reduce both injuries and illnesses on the job. For more information, contact the Fund’s OSH Division at 202-628-5465 or contact us here.

[Nick Fox]

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