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Workers' compensation underutilized in construction

January 12, 2016
 / Safety / 

Workers' compensation is common throughout the construction industry, as well as other occupations with a high risk of injury. According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Social Security Administration, in 2012 it was estimated around 127.9 million American employees were covered by some form of workers' compensation program under state or federal law. According to the SSA, these benefits, paid out to workers who are injured on the job from no fault of their own, are subsidized entirely by employers.

"Workers' compensation has gone unused by many construction professionals."

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Studies suggest worker's compensation is going unused in construction.

While employees tend to be generally well-covered by these benefits, recent studies suggest few of them are being utilized for a variety of reasons. A report from researchers at the Center for Construction Research and Training found that more than 25 percent of construction workers surveyed had suffered an injury on the job at some point in their career, but chose not to report it. A trend of underutilization of workers' compensation benefits seems to be arising due to multiple factors, including negative patterns in workplace culture. This study and others may be cause for widespread evaluation of how industry leaders manage worker safety and indicate a need for more open communication, and new construction safety systems to help achieve these goals.

Troubling trends in coverage
One state in particular has found significant gaps in the number of workers getting injured on the job and those who actually report those injuries as workers' compensation claims. In June, the New Hampshire Division of Public Services' Occupational Health Surveillance Program published the results of a survey of construction workers. While 280 of the survey respondents - all construction workers required to be covered by an employer's insurance - said they had suffered an injury on the job, barely half of them received compensation for it. The difference was made up with personal insurance in about 20 percent of these cases, but mostly came from "other sources," likely out-of-pocket payments. The study's authors noted that this lapse in reporting had imposed a heavy financial burden on private insurers, governments and the personal income of families. This puts unnecessary stress on the economy as a whole, and poses a looming problem for the industry.

The trend isn't just limited to one state. A study from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Mo., revealed a similar trend even within one specific trade. In a survey of available data, the study found floor layers were much more likely to file private insurance claims for musculoskeletal disorders than members of the general population. According to the study, MSDs are caused by repetitive stress from repeated overexertion of the type that floor layers must endure. Most of the claims involved pain in the neck and lower back. These injuries are generally covered by workers' compensation insurance, but the costly burden was increasingly shifting toward private insurance claims, the study found. This was true across multiple demographic categories, including age and location.

The reasons why workers choose not to report their injuries as work-related injuries are complicated and numerous, according to the previously mentioned CPWR study. Among the most common:

  • Workers accept that injury is part of the job. Some mentioned specifically that they saw their injuries as insignificant, or simply believed that pain was an unavoidable part of their work.
  • Workers did not want to be seen as "weak" for reporting injuries, either in the eyes of employers or fellow workers. Some feared being labeled as "complainers" if they reported their injuries.
  • Some participants told researchers they feared reprisal from employers if they reported their injuries. Workers expected to either be fired or not hired in the future in the event they reported a work-related injury. Others found the process of reporting these injuries to be too complicated and not worth the trouble.
Work injuryMany construction professionals choose not to report their injuries for a variety of reasons.

Injuries rarely reported
A study from researchers at Duke University found similar reports of a negative safety environment from construction workers. In interviews with over 1,000 carpentry apprentices in Illinois and Missouri, researchers found 58 percent of participants were actively discouraged from filing workers' compensation claims, either through an incentive program or a disincentive scheme used to curb the practice. As many as 30 percent of those surveyed told researchers accidents were "rarely or almost never reported." A few of the apprentices' specific fears were quoted in the report, with many expressing a lack of confidence in the workers' compensation system.

"You are pretty much screwed if you get hurt at work," one told researchers. "You will probably get workers' comp but you will most likely never go back to work for the company for an extended period of time."

"They want it faster and if you are injured, go home and don't report it," another said. "There are a lot of other guys in line to replace you."

In their analysis of these findings, the study's authors suggested industry leaders prioritize strategies to encourage a reversal of this trend. Instead of fostering an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, employers need to adopt a "positive error management climate" that can encourage reporting of injuries, as well as generally open communication and reliance on mutual respect and problem-solving. With the use of various construction safety products, it is possible for workers to report injuries and safety concerns anonymously, which could minimize the possibility of blowback from coworkers. The most important idea that must be conveyed, though, is that one's health and safety matters on every work site.

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