On-the-job injuries are an unfortunate reality for many employers. Every year, millions of employees suffer injuries and illnesses in the workplace. While some industries have a higher risk of harm than others, you can expect to deal with an injured worker at some point, even if your team works from the relative safety of an office.
Employers have a legal responsibility to provide their workers with a safe workplace, carry workers’ compensation insurance, and handle injury claims appropriately. Failure to comply with these duties can expose employers to fines, lawsuits, and even criminal charges.
Knowing how to provide a safe workplace and deal with injuries before they happen can help you prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
Workplace Safety: A Work in Progress
Modern workers benefit from workplace safety practices that have evolved over time. In the last one hundred years, working conditions have drastically improved in many countries thanks to lessons learned the hard way. For example, industries such as mining, manufacturing, and railroads were exceptionally dangerous early on, with few worker protections.
Thanks to the efforts of twentieth century reformers, workplace safety has become the subject of increased public concern. The federal government passed regulations, such as workers’ compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, 1 that provide safety rights to workers.
Work Safety Statistics
Despite improvements, work safety risks cannot be eliminated entirely.
● According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported 2.6 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses and 5,190 fatal work injuries in 2021.2
o More than 1 million of these injuries and illnesses caused a worker to miss at least one day of work.
o Every 101 minutes, a worker died from a work-related injury in 2021.
● The National Safety Council reports that there were 4.26 million “medically consulted” workplace injuries across all industries in 2021.3
o Industries with the highest injury risks were construction, education and health services, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and transportation and warehousing.
o Work injuries cost the country more than $160 billion annually, including around $44,000 per each medically consulted injury and $1.3 million per death.
The phrase “work injury” might bring to mind traumatic incidents such as trips, slips, and falls; electrocutions; motor vehicle accidents; and getting struck by falling objects. But in fact, workers are more likely to suffer nonimpact repetitive motion injuries.
Statistically, a construction worker has a greater chance of getting injured from using a hand tool, day after day, hour after hour, than from that same tool falling off a roof and striking them. This explains why many white-collar industries (e.g., business services, government, retail, and education services) have high injury rates despite the work not being outwardly dangerous.
Repetitive tasks like typing, texting, and using a mouse result in nearly one-quarter of all workplace injuries. And overexertion injuries result in a median of fourteen days away from work as compared to twelve days missed for all other injury-causing events and exposures.4
Occupational Safety and Health Administration Employer Responsibilities
The OSH Act, passed in 1970, created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA is in charge of workplace health and safety standards and regulations.
The OSH Act imposes employer safety responsibilities that include the following 5 :
● Providing a workplace free of serious recognized hazards
● Examining workplace conditions to ensure that they comply with industry-specific OSHA standards
● Making sure employees have—and use—safe tools and equipment
● Warning employees about potential hazards with posters, labels, or signs
● Providing health and safety training to employees
● Posting an OSHA poster in a prominent location that informs employees of their rights (OSHA gives workers the right to report hazards without fear of retaliation, review records of work-related injuries and illnesses, and request an OSHA inspection.)
In addition, employers must report work-related inpatient hospitalizations to OSHA within twenty-four hours and all work-related fatalities within eight hours. OSHA reserves the right to conduct workplace inspections without advance notice.
OSH Act violations can result in penalties ranging from around $1,000 to $145,000 per violation and $14,500 per day. Repeated and willful violations bring higher penalties, but OSHA has latitude and can fine an employer merely for violating the posting requirement. Failing to fix a violation can lead to daily penalties that quickly add up to large sums.
Workers’ Compensation Employer Responsibilities
The first workers’ compensation law was a federal law for railroad workers passed in 1908. In 1910, New York became the first state to pass a workers’ compensation law. Today, each state has its own workers’ compensation law. Although state laws vary in their details, most states require employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance to pay for work-related injuries and illnesses. This employer-provided insurance covers medical treatment, disability benefits, and lost wages.
● With very few exceptions (e.g., intoxicated employees who get hurt on the job or employees who intentionally harm themselves), workers’ compensation covers injuries that arise in the scope of employment, regardless of fault.
● Workers’ compensation does not cover injuries that occur outside of work. Sometimes, there can be a dispute about whether an injury is work-related.
● Remote and telecommuting workers are typically covered under their employer’s policy.
● In exchange for no-fault workers’ compensation benefits, workers give up the right to sue their employer for a workplace injury. However, in limited circumstances, they may be able to file a lawsuit for an on-the-job injury. For example, an injured employee may be able to sue their employer if workers’ compensation coverage is not provided, benefits are wrongfully denied, or the employer tries to fraudulently conceal the source of injury, such as a toxic chemical in the workplace.
● If an employee has grounds to sue their employer for an injury or illness that occurs at work, the employer may be forced to pay for medical expenses, disability, and other injury-related costs.
● An employer who does not have workers’ compensation coverage can also face state fines and possibly criminal prosecution.
● Misclassifying employees as independent contractors, underreporting the number of employees, or lying about a workplace safety program to avoid paying insurance premiums could constitute workers’ compensation fraud.
Once an on-the-job injury is reported to an employer, the employer has the following obligations:
● Securing the incident site to prevent further safety incidents
● Reporting the incident to the company’s representative (i.e., someone in human resources or management) in accordance with internal policies and procedures
● Completing injury and illness reports
● Reporting the claim to their insurance carrier within the applicable deadline
● Providing a copy of the carrier’s injury report to the injured worker
● Recommending healthcare providers from an approved list (if state law allows employers to choose providers)
● Staying in contact with the carrier and the injured employee
● Paying the benefits that are owed
● Establishing a timeline to return to work
● Not discriminating or retaliating against a worker for filing a claim
Workplace Safety Is a Team Effort. We Can Help.
As an employer, you are not expected to provide a workplace free from all possible harm. But it is your responsibility to enact legally compliant safety protocols, carry workers’ compensation insurance, and respond appropriately to injuries and claims.
You cannot keep injuries from happening altogether. You can, however, recognize what is expected of you and have an action plan to minimize legal exposure.
1 29 U.S.C. §§ 651-678.
2 Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities, U.S. Bureau Lab. Stats., https://www.bls.gov/iif/ (last visited Mar. 6, 2023).
3 Work Safety Introduction, Nat. Safety Council: Injury Facts, https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/work-overview/work-safety-introduction/ (last visited Mar. 6, 2023).
4 Overexertion and Bodily Reaction, Nat. Safety Council: Injury Facts, https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/safety-topics/overexertion-and-bodily-reaction/ (last visited Mar. 6, 2023).
5 Employer Responsibilities, Occupational Safety and Health Admin., https://www.osha.gov/workers/employer-responsibilities (last visited Mar. 6, 2023).