Lockdown’s Silver Lining: Fewer Workplace Injuries

If there’s one silver lining to come out of all the misery of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: The number of injuries that happened at work fell sharply in 2020, even as illness cases increased. 

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Employer-reported data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that there were 2.1 million nonfatal injuries in 2020, down from 2.7 million in 2019. The rate of injury cases also decreased from 2.6 cases per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) employee in 2019 to 2.2 cases in 2020.

Experts point to several reasons for the decline. For one, many workplaces were shut down early in the pandemic due to government-mandated closures, which meant fewer opportunities for injuries. For another, millions of Americans shifted to working remotely — a trend that has continued even as vaccines have become more widely available. 

While the decline in workplace injuries is encouraging, the BLS notes that illness cases have increased dramatically. In 2020, there were 544,600 cases of recordable illnesses, up from 127,200 cases in 2019. The case rate of illness increased 350% from 12.4 cases per 10,000 full-time equivalent workers to 55.9 cases. 

The sharp increase is due to a nearly 4,000% rise in employer reported respiratory illness cases at 428,700 compared to 10,800 in 2019.


Image source: BLS

Exactly how many of these cases can be attributed to COVID-19 is not clear. The BLS’ Occupational Injury and Illness Classification System (OIICS) does not include a code specifically for COVID-19. However, 32% of the total nonfatal injuries and illnesses that caused employees to miss work were categorized as “other diseases due to viruses not elsewhere classified”, which includes reported COVID-19 related cases.

The data also reveals that while fewer people are getting sick or hurt at work, those that do are getting more severely ill. In 2020, workers experienced 33% more serious injuries and illnesses involving days away from work compared to 2019. This makes sense given the surge in respiratory illness cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19. 

In spite of the increase in illness cases, the overall number of people who got sick or hurt at work decreased 5.7% in 2020. Employers reported 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020, down from 2.8 million in 2019. The overall rate of recordable injuries and illnesses also dropped 3.6% in 2020, from 2.8 cases per 100 to 2.7 cases. 

Whether injury rates will remain low as businesses reopen and people return to work remains to be seen. The BLS doesn’t publish statistics for the previous year until November of the following year, so we don’t yet know how the return to work will affect workplace safety.

That said, many organizations have realized the importance of investing in workplace safety during COVID-19. We are optimistic that the increased emphasis on safety will result in safer workplaces even after the pandemic is over.

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