Labor Day Report: Occupational Illnesses Remained level in 2019 Prior to COVID-19 Pandemic

Occupational illnesses remained essentially even in 2019 based on workers’ compensation reports, but it is anticipated that COVID-19 reports will increase infectious disease reports starting with next year’s report (2020 data).

Occupational illnesses remained essentially even in 2019 based on workers’ compensation reports, but it is anticipated that COVID-19 reports will increase infectious disease reports starting with next year’s report (2020 data).

There were just over 5,000 reports of occupational illnesses in Connecticut to the CT Workers’ Compensation Commission in 2019, essentially the same as in 2018. This report focuses on chronic occupational illnesses and so does not include traumatic occupational injuries. Reports based on the survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics/CT Dept. of Labor also remained essentially the same. Physician reports are not yet available for 2019 since coding by the CT Dept. of Public Health were dramatically disrupted by COVID-19 demands.

According to UConn Health’s experts, while this year’s surge in occupational infectious disease due to COVID-19 is not reflected in this latest 2019 data report, the 2019 workers’ compensation reports include approximately 1,300 occupational infectious diseases, as well as 2,300 chronic musculoskeletal conditions, 400 lung diseases, 200 skin conditions, 100 hearing loss cases, and 900 “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 front line 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,” said Tim Morse, Ph.D., author of the annual report and occupational and environmental health expert professor emeritus at UConn Health.

Morse adds: “While cases appear to have remained essentially level, it should be recognized that many occupational illnesses do not get reported and that they preventable through systematic health and safety interventions such as safe needle devices, ergonomic evaluations, and overall safety initiatives by the health and safety committees that are required in most Connecticut workplaces.”

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 speakerphones 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 2019 show 5,259 illnesses reported to workers’ compensation, essentially the same as the from 5,257 in 2018. For 2019 the state’s rate of illness, based on the national Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, decreased 8% from 2018 to 13.0 per 10,000 workers, 11% lower than the national average.

This newly published Occupational Disease in Connecticut, 2021 report examined the latest available data (1997-2019) based on reports of individuals filing for workers’ compensation and the CTDOL/BLS survey of employers. The cases included 2,291 for musculoskeletal disease (MSD), 1,309 for infectious diseases, 448 for lung ailments, 197 for skin conditions, 113 for hearing loss, 901 other illnesses, and 275 lead poisonings (from lab data).

Rates of illness varied widely by municipality based on workers’ compensation reports. Often the highest rates appear to be related to having large employers in high-rate industries. There were 54 towns and cities with at least 25 cases of occupational disease reported to workers’ compensation, and the overall state mean (average) was 31.5 cases per 10,000 employees. For towns with at least 25 cases, Plainfield had the highest rate at 93 cases per 10,000 employees, almost 3 times higher than the average rate. Plainfield was followed by Vernon (76), Cheshire (70), Windsor Locks (66), Waterbury (65), Groton (60), Guilford (59), Manchester (56), Stratford (56), Putnam (52), and Torrington (50).

Based on the report findings (from Workers’ Compensation data), the highest rates based on specific industry sector were in Transportation Support (101.8 cases per 10,000 workers), State government (93.4), Local Government (86.4), Non-store retailers (73.3), Computer and Electronic Product Manufacturing (72.4) Hospitals (69.2) and Chemical Manufacturing (63.2).

“We are always trying to reduce the economic and human costs of occupational illness. While it is good that rates appear to be stable, we would urge employers to use the lessons learned this past year from the COVID-19 pandemic and apply those lessons broadly so that we can see the rates go down,” Chairman of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission Stephen Morelli said. “The Commission tries to improve workplace health through its prevention and educational services programs which require and monitor company health and safety committees and provide information on prevention.”

Each year the Labor Day report is prepared for the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission by UConn Health’s Dr. 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, 2021 report can be viewed online here.