UConn Health Report: Occupational Illnesses Impact 25,000 Connecticut Workers, COVID-19 Shows Importance of Prevention

Storage of protective headwear, footwear and gloves
A new report from UConn Health measures workplace illness across Connecticut (Getty Images).

There are an estimated 25,000 occupational illnesses in Connecticut annually, according to the latest available data published in UConn Health’s Labor Day Report.

According to UConn Health experts, while this year’s surge in occupational infectious disease due to COVID-19 is not reflected in this latest 2018 data report, the estimated 2018 statistics include 7,000 occupational infectious diseases, as well as 9,000 chronic musculoskeletal conditions, 2,000 lung diseases, 800 skin conditions, 300 hearing loss cases, and 5,000 “other” conditions including stress, headaches, heart, and difficult-to-classify conditions.

“Occupational illnesses are clearly in our minds today as we see the risks posed by COVID-19 to frontline workers in health care, transportation, retail, and elsewhere. However, workers in Connecticut face many other infectious diseases such as bloodborne exposures in healthcare, Lyme Disease and skin conditions in outdoor workers, musculoskeletal conditions in manufacturing, offices and construction, and job stress and heart conditions in protective services,” says Tim Morse, author of the annual report and occupational and environmental health expert professor emeritus at UConn Health.

Estimated totals are based on an analysis that matches cases that are reported by employers to the Workers’ Compensation Commission and/or by physicians to the state health and labor departments. The report also includes standardized estimates based on a Labor Department/OSHA survey of employers.

“These occupational illnesses impact the lives of 25,000 workers in Connecticut, in addition to traumatic injuries that are not included in this report, and COVID-19 shows clearly how important it is to prevent them,” Morse says.

There are several approaches that can reduce the risk of occupational illnesses during these COVID-19 times:

  1. Ergonomic evaluations can prevent musculoskeletal disorders. For example, for those working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, avoiding cradling the phone by using headphones or speaker phones during conference calls can reduce neck and shoulder discomfort, using a larger higher monitor can reduce eye fatigue and neck discomfort as well, and a drop-down keyboard tray can prevent tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
  2. Using safer substitutes for cleaning chemicals, such as microfiber cloths or vinegar water can reduce the risk of lung conditions such as occupational asthma.
  3. Frequent handwashing, improved fresh air ventilation systems, and the use of n-95 respirators or powered air purifying respirators can reduce the risk of infectious disease among essential workers.

The latest available data from 2018 show 7,328 reported illnesses, slightly down from 7,457 in 2017, and an estimate of approximately 18,500 unreported cases. For 2018 the state’s rate of illness, based on the national Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, rose 9% from 2017 to 14.1 per 10,000 workers, but is 8% lower than the national average.

This newly published Occupational Disease in Connecticut, 2020 report examined the latest available data (1997-2018) based on reports of individuals filing for workers’ compensation, physician reports to the Occupational Injury and Illness Surveillance System, and the CTDOL/BLS survey of employers. The cases included 2,869 for musculoskeletal disease (MSD), 2,148 for infectious diseases, 621 for lung ailments, 273 for skin conditions, 92 for hearing loss, 1,057 other illnesses, and 268 lead poisonings (from lab data).

Rates of illness varied widely by municipality. There were 54 towns and cities with at least 25 cases of occupational disease reported to workers’ compensation. For towns with at least 25 cases, Cromwell had the highest rate at 123 cases per 10,000 employees, almost 4 times higher than the state average. Cromwell was followed by Tolland (117 cases per 10,000 employees), Vernon (72), Killingly (68), Meriden (57), Stratford (57), Waterbury (55), Torrington (51), and Farmington (50).

Based on the report findings (from Workers’ Compensation data), the highest rates of occupational illnesses were found in the industries of Government (77.6%), Manufacturing (44.2%), and Trade (31.2%).

“The Workers’ Compensation Commission is encouraged by the decline in the numbers of occupational illnesses as employees and employers continue to focus on prevention,” Chairman of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission Stephen Morelli says. “Commissioners see the profound effects of occupational illnesses on a daily basis. The Commission tries to reduce these effects by providing prevention services through encouraging active company health and safety committees and providing information on prevention.”

Each year the Labor Day report is prepared for the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission by UConn Health’s Morse.

The report is part of the Occupational Injury and Illness Surveillance System, a cooperative effort of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Connecticut Department of Public Health, and the Connecticut Labor Department. The system is designed to track occurrences of work-related disease, with an eye to understanding patterns and developing approaches to prevent occupational illness. The report includes an Executive Summary, a “Who’s Who” list of contacts for occupational health resources, and a list of useful websites.

The full Occupational Disease in Connecticut, 2020 report can be viewed online here.