Labor Day Report: Connecticut Occupational Illnesses Dominated by COVID-19

In 2020, workers' compensation cases stemming from illness doubled as a result of the pandemic

Worker scanning fever temperature with digital thermometer to construction site staff wearing hygiene face mask protect from Coronavirus or COVID-19.

COVID-19 accounted for a surge of workplace illnesses in 2020, according to a new UConn Health report (Adobe Stock).

Occupational illnesses in 2020 for Connecticut were dominated by reports of job-related COVID-19, resulting in a doubling of workers’ compensation occupational diseases from 2019 to 11,041 cases, and accounting for 83% of all infectious disease cases.

That’s according to the latest “Occupational Disease in Connecticut” report, prepared by occupational and environmental health expert Tim Morse Ph.D., professor emeritus at UConn Health, for the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission.

The newly published report examined the latest available data (1997-2020) based on reports of individuals filing for workers’ compensation, physician reports, and the CTDOL/BLS survey of employers.

The report shows 5,409 first reports of injury cases due to COVID-19 and an additional 1,517 COVID-19 reports through a supplemental workers’ compensation reporting database. COVID-19 reports also resulted in over a tripling of cases in the Bureau of Labor Statistics/Connecticut Dept. of Labor reporting system, from 1,700 in 2019 to 8,000 in 2020.

However, if COVID-19 reports were excluded, occupational illnesses actually decreased across all the surveillance systems (workers’ compensation, physician reports, and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics). It is likely that other occupational illnesses were greatly affected by the dramatic changes in the workplace caused by the COVID-19 epidemic such as layoffs, sick time, and remote work.

Based on matching between workers’ compensation and physician reports, there were 3,198 cases of chronic musculoskeletal disorders, 478 cases of lung disease or poisonings, 306 cases of skin conditions, 159 cases of hearing loss, and 1,009 “other illness” cases (including heart and stress conditions, cancers, dizziness, chemical exposures, allergic reactions, and other ill-defined cases), in addition to the 7,280 infectious disease cases. Lab reports from the state Department of Public Health also found 199 reports of adult lead poisoning.

COVID-19 reporting to workers’ compensation was likely greatly affected by the response to Gov. Ned Lamont’s Executive Order 7JJJ, which established a “rebuttable presumption” that a claim was compensable in the situation where an employee  missed a day or more of work between March 10, 2020 and May 20, 2020 due to a lab-confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, provided that the employee worked outside the home and that the employer was defined as essential under executive orders.

In addition, the Connecticut Legislature passed the Essential Workers’ COVID-19 Assistance Fund  which provided for lost wages, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and burial expenses for essential workers who lived in Connecticut, contracted COVID-19, became ill and were unable to work (or died) between March 10, 2020 and July 20, 2021. For the most part, essential workers were defined based on the categories established by the U.S. CDC for vaccination priority and related issues.

Over half (55%) of COVID-19 cases were in the Education/Health sector, and 11% in local government. More detailed analysis found the highest rate (and number) for Nursing and Residential Care Facilities, with a rate of 373.4 cases per thousand (and 2,110 cases); followed by Hardware Stores (rate of 211.8); Hospitals (159.6); Couriers and Messengers (158.8); and Local Government (107.3); local government also had a very high number of cases at 1,423.

“COVID-19 has become the dominant occupational illness starting in 2020, with an enormous impact both on front-line workers and other workers who cannot work remotely, as well as having a profound impact on work-life which in turn impacts other occupational illnesses,” says Morse.

Morse notes there are several approaches that can reduce the risk of occupational illnesses both in relation to infectious disease as well as the risk of other occupational illnesses that may have indirectly affected by the pandemic:

  1. Following NIOSH and CDC guidelines for COVID-19 such as monitoring and testing, increased ventilation and air filtering, remote work where possible, the use of powered air purifying or N95 respirators, and social distancing, particularly during periods of increased infection.
  2. 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 and higher monitor (than a laptop on a table) can reduce eye fatigue and neck discomfort, and a drop-down keyboard tray can reduce the risk of tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
  3. Reducing the risk from increased use of sanitizers by using safer substitutes for cleaning chemicals such as microfiber cloths or vinegar water may reduce the risk of lung conditions such as occupational asthma.
  4. Frequent handwashing may be important for infectious disease, but can also result in increased risk for skin conditions so attention to milder soaps/sanitizers is important.

Interestingly, there was an overall illness rate of 64.4 cases per 10,000 workers based on the BLS survey, 395% higher than the previous year. The Connecticut rate was 9% higher than the average national rate of 59.1 and was the 10th highest out of the 42 states reporting data. As would be expected with numbers so driven by COVID-19, the highest specific sector rate was for Health Care (245 cases per 10,000), followed by Manufacturing (52), Local Government (46), State Government (31) and Utilities (28). In the workers’ compensation data, the rate of illness in 2020 was 71.4 cases per 10,000 workers, 125% higher than the 31.5 cases per 10,000 in 2019. The highest illness rates by industry sector were for Education and Health (133.7 cases per 10,000 workers, 187% higher than the overall rate) and Government (130.4), with all other sectors below the average rate.

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 84 towns and cities with at least 25 cases of occupational disease reported to workers’ compensation, and the overall state mean (average) was 72.4 cases per 10,000 employees. For towns with at least 25 cases, Woodbridge had the highest rate at 243 cases per 10,000, over three times the state average. This was followed by East Lyme (203.3), East Hampton (190.9), Stafford (188.0), Stonington (156.9), Tolland (154.1), Meriden (151.9), Vernon (139.9), Chester (138.4), and Waterbury (136.2). Overall, 42 towns had rates higher than the state average.

“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 says. “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.”

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 and apps.

The full Occupational Disease in Connecticut, 2022 report can be viewed online here.