Journalism in the Public Interest

OSHA Report Echoes ProPublica and NPR’s Workers’ Comp Findings

Separate investigations into changes in the workers’ compensation system nationwide found that cutbacks were hurting injured workers and their families.

Dennis Whedbee, 52, of Homer City, Pennsylvania, lost half of his left arm in a drilling accident in North Dakota in September 2012. Above, Whedbee shows a photo of himself in front of a safety sign on a job site after the accident. (Jeff Swensen for ProPublica)

Nearly a year ago, ProPublica set out to investigate the extent of changes to America’s workers’ compensation system and the impact they were having on injured workers.

Around the same time, researchers at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration independently decided to do the same thing.

On Wednesday, to our surprise, we published our story and OSHA released its report. Both detailed a system decimated by state lawmakers across the country.

Our investigation, in partnership with NPR, found that since 2003, more than 30 states have cut workers’ comp benefits, created hurdles to getting medical care or made it harder to qualify. The changes have resulted in devastating consequences for some of the hundreds of thousands of workers who suffer serious injuries at work each year.

The reductions in benefits have been driven largely by big businesses and insurers, which cite out-of-control costs. But we found that businesses are paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp insurance since the late 1970s. The costs are being shifted to taxpayers, who shell out an estimated $30 billion a year in medical costs and lost wages not covered by workers’ comp.

OSHA’s report echoed several of ProPublica and NPR’s findings and tied workplace injuries to the national debate over income inequality. The agency, which investigates workplace accidents, said changes in workers’ comp programs have made it increasingly difficult for injured workers to get the benefits they’re entitled to.

The report noted that workers’ comp pays just 20 percent of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries and illnesses.

“If employers whose workers are being injured had to pay the true cost of these injuries, these employers would have real incentive to prevent the injuries from occurring,” OSHA director David Michaels said in an interview Thursday. “Instead, workers, their families and taxpayers are subsidizing these dangerous employers.”

OSHA decided to look into the issue, he said, after investigators witnessed workers and their families struggling to make ends meet after workplace accidents. In addition, several workers told OSHA during inspections that they were afraid they’d be fired if they filed workers’ comp claims for their injuries.

OSHA’s report pointed to two recent studies in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that noted that more than half of hospital patients with work-related amputations in Massachusetts and one-third of those patients in California didn’t receive workers’ comp benefits.

Even with workers’ compensation benefits, studies show that injured workers’ incomes are, on average, almost $31,000 lower over 10 years than if they had not been injured, the report said.

The agency urged states to eliminate roadblocks that prevent injured workers from getting the medical care and adequate wage-replacement payments they need.

“It does appear that there is right now a race to the bottom. State workers’ compensation systems are competing to lower benefits and make it tougher for workers to get the benefits to which they’re entitled,” Michaels said. “We think it’s very important for states to ensure that workers who are injured and made sick on the job get full compensation.”

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