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Accidents Add Income Insult to Injury

Monday, March 9, 2015

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If you shatter your leg in a fall from a scaffold, who is going to shoulder those six-figure medical bills? And fill the income gap while you recover?

The answers are most likely: You. And no one.

The fact is, the financial hit caused by a serious workplace injury may be as devastating as the physical one, with rising expenses and declining income that persist for years, a new federal report finds.

"On average, a worker who is seriously injured will earn 15 percent less over a 10-year period and will bear 50 percent of the costs associated with that injury," the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports in Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job.

Images, photos: Adding Inequality to Injury

More than three million U.S. workers are reported seriously injured on the job each year—a toll that the government says is underreported. Serious injuries include amputations and disabling fractures.

The new report explores the "substantial impacts" of workplace injuries and illness on income—a toll that reached $198 billion nationally in 2012.

Financial Trap

Serious workplace injuries can create a permanent financial trap for victims and their families, due to tightening workers compensation programs, increasing medical costs, and shifting liability, OSHA reports.

The medical bills and lost income can drive middle-class families into poverty and prevent lower-wage workers from ever entering the middle class, the report says.

Despite the perception that employer-paid workers comp will cover lost wages, rehab and medical expenses, "the coverage is actually quite limited," OSHA reports.

Changes in state workers' comp laws mean that employers now provide only about 20 percent of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries and illnesses through those programs, according to OSHA.


Despite the perception that workers compensation covers most medical expenses and lost income after an injury, tightening of laws has sharply limited coverage, OSHA says.

Meanwhile, several studies have found that fewer than 40 percent of eligible workers even apply for workers comp, the government says. Many of these workers are injured immigrants who fear losing their jobs.

The upshot, OSHA reports: "This cost-shift has forced injured workers, their families and taxpayers to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions."

The Toll of Temps

Two other employment practices common in the construction and coatings industries are exacerbating the problem, OSHA reports.

The first is the "pervasive misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors," a bookkeeping sleight of hand that many employers use to dodge taxes, workers compensation and benefits owed to workers, the government says.

An investigation by the McClatchy newspaper chain estimated that 37.7 percent of all construction workers in Texas, 35.2 percent in North Carolina, and 15.5 percent in Florida were misclassified as independent contractors—about 500,000 construction workers in just those three states.


Hundreds of thousands of employees in construction and related fields are illegally misclassified as independent contractors, leaving them without legally required wages and benefits, OSHA reports.

Also at play is the widespread and ever-growing use of temporary workers in construction, coatings and other fields. Millions of temporary workers are on the job today, and they are at far higher risk of serious injury than regular employees, due to insufficient training and unfamiliarity with job sites and procedures.

OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report "numerous preventable deaths and disabling injuries of temporary workers." And when these workers are injured, they lack the resources and support systems of permanent employees, OSHA notes.
"The costs of workplace injuries are borne primarily by injured workers, their families, and taxpayer-supported components of the social safety net," the report finds.
4,500 Deaths, 3 Million Injuries
About 4,500 U.S. workers are killed on the job each year, and nearly three million suffer serious injury or illness, according to reports filed with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The actual toll is likely far higher, BLS adds.
Serious injuries include amputations, severe wounds, back injuries and other conditions that require care beyond first aid. Injuries treated only by first aid are not recordable.

The financial impact of a workplace injury on expenses and income can be felt for years afterward, OSHA found.

Moreover, chronic illnesses that originate with workplace exposures may not show up until years after the job has ended, so they are not recorded as workplace related.

Studies cited by OSHA estimate that 50,000 U.S. deaths each year are attributable to past workplace exposures to asbestos, silica, benzene and other hazardous agents—far more than the 33,000 people lost annually to traffic crashes.


Despite the high toll, the situation is improving, OSHA reports. In 1970, about 14,000 workers were killed on the job. That amounted to about 38 workers a day, a number that has plummeted today to 12.

Despite such progress, "12 deaths a day is still 12 too many," says OSHA. And sharp disparities in reporting and incidence rates suggests that more can be done.

For example, OSHA notes, the fatality rate among UK construction workers is about one-quarter the toll in the U.S.

The best solution is prevention through better training and the development of injury and illness prevention programs, OSHA reports.

When injuries do occur, removing roadblocks to workers comp and other supports will help prevent a temporary injury from becoming a permanent financial liability.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Business management; Construction; Enforcement; Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; North America; OSHA; Worker training

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