By Kenneth Corbin
Last year, the U.S. workplace got a little safer for some: the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) tallied 3.1 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2010 among private sector firms, down from 3.3 million reported incidents the previous year. That made for an incidence rate of 3.5 cases per 100 full-time workers last year, according to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It's a different story in the public sector, which saw a notably higher rate of injuries and illnesses. The BLS counted 5.7 cases among full-time state and local workers such as police and firefighters, with the lion's share attributed to employees of local governments.
"Almost half of those are sprains and strains, that's almost for every industry," said BLS economist Sean Smith.
"Those are the leading injuries or illnesses," Smith said, adding that that type of incident accounts for "usually around 40 percent" of all reported workplace injuries and illnesses.
So in which industries are workers most exposed to the threat of an injury or illness? In the private sector, which accounted for 85 percent of the workers under consideration in the report, the five industries with the greatest workplace risk in 2010 were:
1. Health care and social assistance -- 5.2 cases per 100 workers
With 16 million workers employed in the segment, health care and social assistance was the most populous category in the BLS report, making it troubling to some officials that it carried the highest rate of injuries and illnesses.
In November, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary for the DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), announced that the agency would launch the National Emphasis Program on Nursing Home and Residential Care Facilities in the next couple months.
"It is unacceptable that the workers who have dedicated their lives to caring for our loved ones when they are sick are the very same workers who face the highest risk of work-related injury and illness," Michaels said in a statement announcing the new program. "Through this initiative, we will increase our inspections of these facilities, focusing on back injuries from resident handling or lifting patients, exposure to blood borne pathogens and other infectious diseases, workplace violence, and slips, trips and falls."
Within this group, workers at nursing and residential care facilities experienced the highest rate of workplace injuries and illnesses, with 8.3 incidents per 100 employees, while hospitals saw an incidence rate of 7.0 per 100 employees. Ambulatory health care services and social assistance were more in line with the cross-industry average, with incidence rates of 2.8 and 3.5, respectively.
2. Transportation and warehousing -- 5.2 cases per 100 workers
Of the 3.9 million workers in the transportation and warehousing industry, individuals working in air transportation saw the most hazardous conditions. The DOL reports that 8.1 injuries and illnesses per 100 workers occurred in this segment. Couriers and messengers experienced 7.2 cases per 100 employees. At the other end of the spectrum, however, were rail transportation and pipeline transportation, with incidence rates of 2.0 and 2.5, respectively.
3. Arts, entertainment and recreation -- 4.8 cases per 100 workers
Workers in the category labeled "performing arts, spectator sports and related industries" were the most injury-prone segment within this industry, experiencing 6.7 incidents per 100, though at just 404,900 employees, the sector was just a small fraction of the overall private-sector employment picture.
The safest subsection of the category was the amusement, gambling and recreation industries, with 4.3 cases per 100 workers, still well above the overall average.
The arts, entertainment and recreation industry counted just over 2 million workers last year.
4. Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting -- 4.8 cases per 100 workers
With fewer than 1 million workers, this industry was one of the smallest, but recorded incidence rates for all occupations above the private-sector average. The most hazardous line of work involved animal production, with 5.2 incidents of illness or injury per 100 workers. Forestry and logging saw 3.6 cases per 100 workers, the lowest rate among occupations in the industry.
The Labor Department reported 967,800 workers in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry in 2010.
5. Manufacturing -- 4.4 cases per 100 workers
Manufacturing was the only industry that saw its incidence rate creep up from 2009, reporting 4.4 cases per 100 workers, up slightly from 4.3 the year before. With 11.4 million workers, it was also the third-most-populous industry, behind only health and social assistance and retail trade, which counted 14.5 million workers.
Beverage and tobacco product manufacturing was the riskiest occupation within this industry, with 6.4 cases per 100 workers, followed closely by primary metal manufacturing (6.3) and wood product manufacturing (6.2).
The safest occupations in the industry were computer and electronic product manufacturing and petroleum and coal products manufacturing, each with an incidence rate of 1.5 cases per 100 workers.
Because of implemented OSHA standards, on-the-job injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent, while U.S. employment has nearly doubled. It's clear that employees have OSHA to thank, in part, for a safer work environment.
A deeper look: Injuries are more prevalent than illnesses
While the BLS lumps injuries and illnesses together for the purposes of its reporting, injuries dominate the category. Of the 3.1 million incidents the agency reported last year, around 2.9 million, or 95 percent, were injuries, with illnesses accounting for the remaining 5 percent.
The most recent report reveals a multi-year downtick in workplace injuries and illnesses, which fell 5.9 percent from 2009 and down 29.8 percent since 2003.
"We are encouraged by the reported decline in incidence rates for workplace injuries and illnesses, which is reflective of the joint effort of government, business, unions and other organizations," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement. "Nevertheless, 3.1 million injuries and illnesses in the workplace is too high. Serious injuries and illnesses can knock a working family out of the middle class. Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a paycheck."
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