Saturday, October 8, 2011

Have Occupational Injury Rates Stopped Falling?

For most of the last twenty years, we have seen time-loss injury rates decline across a broad spectrum of industries and in jurisdictions around the world. This has been welcome news on all fronts. The human loss and suffering avoided alone is one thing, and the financial costs are yet another reason for celebrating this remarkable improvement.

On the downside, the rate of decline has slowed and may have actually begun to climb. NCCI reports injury frequency has risen for the first time since 1997. In fact, the decline has been going on for even longer than that. If you discount two minor blips in 1997 and 1994, injury rates have declined for 18 of the last 20 years in the study (1991-2009).

Recent data shows 2010 and 2011 have seen increases in overall injury rates. One interesting point made by the analysis is the impact of the length in hours of the work week. Few systems actually measure hours of exposure to work (Washington State being the only North American workers’ comp system I know of), but the NCCI points out that fewer hours of exposure per week (month, quarter, twelve-month moving average) will likely mean fewer injuries if the denominator is week, month or year. As weekly hours increase, so will injuries.

Another factor relates to claim behaviour. The report suggests:
•Some insurance experts have suggested that workers, fearful of losing their jobs, may have postponed filing workers compensation claims, but now appear less hesitant to file claims as the economy has shown signs of modest improvement. While the extent to which this phenomenon occurred is unclear, it may have contributed to the observed increase in claim frequency in 2010.

•There is evidence of an influx of small lost-time claims in 2010, which may have been medical-only claims in previous years. A lack of available light duty jobs for injured workers to return to might have contributed.

Are injury rates declining elsewhere? At WorkSafeBC and other Canadian workers’ compensation systems, we have heard reports of the same sort of flattening of the injury rate. This chart shows some selected provinces’ data up to 2009 and the generally falling injury rates. Since then, we have seen a flattening out of the injury frequency and some evidence of an uptick.

Is this something to worry about? I think so. No injury is acceptable and the only acceptable injury rate is zero: that has to remain the target. I believe we are making progress toward that end. I also believe we have harvested much of the proverbial “low hanging fruit.” We have taken a bit of free ride on technology as well, (you get few trips and falls over power cords when you are using cordless devices). New designs and innovations have further reduced injury (as you will see in the Saw Stop video). We are even beginning to use technology to organize important research, and to deliver key messages to where they are needed, when they are needed (see the Joint Prevention of Workplace Violence: Creating an Innovative Web-based Tool report, and Prevention of Violence website).

Yes, we have made progress but fundamental change takes time. The next step towards a zero injury rate means fundamental changes in a societal shift in beliefs and attitudes. Until we in the workers’ compensation industry begin to believe that work-related injuries are not inevitable, we have little hope of achieving that fundamental societal change.

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