UConn Health is out with its annual Labor Day “Occupational Disease in Connecticut” report, showing that occupational illnesses in 2021 for Connecticut continued to be dominated by reports of job-related COVID-19. But the number of COVID-19 reports declined substantially from 2020, and other reports of occupational diseases were also lower than in previous years.
In fact, with the latest available data from 2021, workers’ compensation reports dropped by 21% for musculoskeletal disorder, 46% for non-COVID infectious disease, 59% for lung disorders, 34% for skin disorders, and 10% for other occupational illnesses. It is likely that occupational illnesses were greatly affected by the dramatic changes in the workplace caused by the COVID-19 epidemic such as remote telecommuting work, layoffs, and sick time, according to UConn School of Medicine Professor Emeritus Tim Morse, who prepares the annual report for the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission.
“While COVID-19 reports decreased in 2021 after the introduction of vaccines, they continued to affect thousands of Connecticut workers, particularly health care workers,” Morse says. “The pandemic also greatly impacted work practices including working from home, use of respirators and increased ventilation and filtering, and employment patterns, which likely impacted other illnesses such as musculoskeletal and skin conditions.”
The data report shows 1,521 first reports of injury cases due to COVID-19 and an additional 4,304 COVID-19 reports through a supplemental workers’ compensation reporting database, a decrease of 16% from the total of 6,926 COVID-19 reports in 2020. The decline in COVID-19 reports also was reflected in a 36% drop in respiratory illness cases in the Bureau of Labor Statistics/Connecticut Dept. of Labor reporting system, from 6,400 in 2020 to 4,100 in 2021.
Based on matching between workers’ compensation and physician reports, there were 2,694 reports of chronic musculoskeletal disorders, 5,836 COVID-19 cases, 1,387 cases of non-COVID infectious diseases, 277 cases of lung disease or poisonings, 217 cases of skin conditions, and 1,059 “other illness” cases (including heart and stress conditions, cancers, dizziness, chemical exposures, allergic reactions, and other ill-defined cases). Lab reports from the state Department of Public Health also found 160 reports of adult lead poisoning. This results in a total of 11,630 unique occupational illnesses reported to either workers’ compensation or by physicians in 2021. The report estimates that approximately 30,000 cases were not reported, giving an estimated total of almost 40,000 cases of chronic occupational illnesses in 2021.
Reductions in workers’ compensation reports of COVID-19 in 2021 likely were affected by the end of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders and other policies. In 2020 Lamont issued executive orders, including 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for vaccination priority and related issues.
Over half (51%) of COVID-19 cases were in the education/health sector with 16% in local government and 10% in wholesale and retail trade. When the sectors are broken down into more detail the largest rate is for nursing and residential care facilities with a rate of 351.0 cases per thousand (and 1,883 cases), followed by couriers and messengers (315.3), hardware stores (290.1), local government (69.1 and 927 cases), hospitals (61.5), and physician offices (59.8). Almost all (95%) of reported cases from hardware store were from one large chain, so there are likely more cases that were not reported by other stores. Nursing home chains were also relatively concentrated, with the largest system accounting for 31% of COVID cases and the top five chains accounting for 51% of cases (out of approximately 170 nursing homes or chains).
According to Morse’s report, 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:
- Following CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 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.
- Ergonomic evaluations can prevent musculoskeletal disorders. For example, for those working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, use of an ergonomic chair, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
There was an overall illness rate of 42.4 cases per 10,000 workers based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, 34% lower than the previous year. The Connecticut rate was approximately equal to the average national rate of 43.7 and was the 16th highest out of the 41 states reporting data.
Based upon workers’ compensation data, the rate of illness in 2021 was 35.3 cases per 10,000 workers, 51% lower than the 71.4 cases per 10,000 in 2020. The highest illness rates by broad industry sector were for government (68.7 per 10,000 workers, approximately double the overall rate), manufacturing (48.1), education and health (41.7), and trade (41.3), with all other sectors below the average rate. Specific industries with the highest rates largely reflect the incidence of COVID-19. hardware stores had the highest rate at 114.9 per 10,000 workers and an increase of 53% over 2020. nursing and residential care facilities was next highest with 111.7, although this was a 68% decrease from 2020. These was followed by educational services (90.8), local government (76.8), and computer and electronic product manufacturing (72.9).
Overall, based on workers’ compensation reports, 50% of reports were for women, but this varied by type of case, with a higher proportion than average for infectious diseases (60% women) but lower for all other types of illness. Based on workers’ compensation reports, occupational illnesses were fairly evenly distributed across age categories between the ages of 25 to 64.
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 55 towns and cities with at least 25 cases of occupational disease reported to workers’ compensation, and the overall state mean (average) was 35.3 cases per 10,000 employees. For towns with at least 25 cases, Vernon had the highest rate of 110.2 per 10,000 workers, over three times the state rate of 35.3. The other towns with the highest rates were Guilford (85.1), Groton (78.4), Waterbury (66.6), Trumbull (62.1), Cheshire (62.0), Cromwell (59.7), Stonington (57.7), East Lyme (55.0), East Haven (54.8), Meriden (51.4) and Bristol (50.4). Overall, 36 towns had rates higher than the state average of 35.3.
“We are always trying to reduce the economic and human costs of occupational illness. While it is good that rates appear to be declining, we still are having as many as 40,000 cases of occupational illnesses a year,” Chairperson 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.”
This newly published Occupational Disease in Connecticut, 2023 report examined the latest available data (1997-2021) based on reports of individuals filing for workers’ compensation, physician reports, and the Connecticut Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of employers.
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 Department of Labor. 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.