U.S. Injury Rates: Is This as Good as It Gets?

Each year more than 3% of the U.S. workforce suffers a recordable injury or illness. Approximately half require days away from work, restricted duty or job transfer (DART). The rates have dropped a bit since 2008 but have been relatively flat since 2011.

In 2013, the most recent BLS data, private and government employers reported just over 1.2 million DART cases, averaging $81,324 and at least 13 lost work days per case. By far the most common injuries reported across all sectors were sprains and strains at around $65,000 each. More expensive injuries such as fractures, which averaged $102,000, were also common.

lost time casesThe combined direct and indirect cost of these injuries and illnesses was $97.6 billion, equating to $728 or about $2 per day for every working American that year. If the entire U.S. economy operated at an average 5% profit, these lost-time cases required an additional $2 trillion in sales to recover the loss. Put another way, the profit from $2 trillion of whatever was sold went to pay for injuries and illnesses. For reference, the 2013 GDP of the United States was just short of $17 trillion.

lost time injury costThe lost work day analysis isn’t any better: U.S. companies gave up at least 16 million days in 2013, with 28% of those injured out for more than 31 days.

These numbers document a continuing drain on the economic and physical health of our workplaces, and for the last several years, it has not gotten noticeably better. Have we reached a point where this is all of the safety that we can afford, and now that cost is just baked into the products and services we produce? For example, I recently calculated and reported that injuries in the automaker sector account for 1% of the cost of a new mid-size sedan.

Even if you take the hard view that this is as good as it gets for the investment we are willing to make, I’ll argue that such an attitude makes you uncompetitive. Reducing injuries and illnesses to increase profit is as sound a business practice as any other and probably better than most. Safety done well pays for itself. It’s hard to argue with the math.