On-the-job illness in Connecticut declining, but still high

Connecticut workers are getting ill on the job less often than in recent years, but still more frequently than the national average, according to a new state report.

The report, called Occupational Disease in Connecticut, 2012, shows that on-the-job illnesses decreased by 12 percent from the year before, continuing a downward trend for the past five years.

Still, Nutmeggers overall had a 9.5 percent higher rate of occupational illness compared with the nation as a whole. Connecticut ranks 15th highest out of the 41 states and territories reporting to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Louisiana had the highest rate of illness, while the District of Columbia had the lowest.

“The takeaway message is even though things are getting better, this is still a lot of cases and we need to keep concentrating how to improve prevention,” said Tim Morse, professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut Health Center, who wrote the report with Paula Schenck, director of indoor environment and health programs at the health center.

The study didn’t draw any definitive conclusions about why Connecticut is higher than the national average, but Morse thinks it could be because Connecticut keeps better records and employees work harder.

“Our productivity rates are very high in Connecticut,” Morse said. “People work very hard in Connecticut compared to the rest of the country.

“When you are working hard, the exposure to musculoskeletal problems tends to be higher. If you are working a lot of overtime in, say, manufacturing, you may have longer exposure to chemicals.”

The report measures workplace illness as opposed to acute traumatic injuries, which are easier to measure. Morse said workplace illnesses tend to be underreported, so the numbers are likely to be as much as five times higher than what is reported, he said.

Most common problems

The report is based on three sets of statistics in 2010, from the state Labor Department, the Connecticut Workers Compensation Commission and physicians’ reports.

More than half of the illnesses reported were in the health and education and manufacturing fields. The health and education segment involved predominantly musculoskeletal illness, followed by skin problems and respiratory disease. Manufacturing illnesses were dominated by hearing loss and musculoskeletal problems.

Two-thirds of the illnesses reported overall were musculoskeletal problems, usually affecting arms and hands, with problems like tendonitis and carpel tunnel syndrome. There cases were typically due to repetitive trauma such as lifting, data entry, pushing and pulling.

Infectious diseases were the next highest category overall, comprising 13 percent of illnesses, Morse said. Many of these involved exposure to blood-borne pathogens from human bites and needle punctures, and were reported by employees who work in police departments, education, corrections and mental health facilities and, sometimes, nursing homes.

Acute respiratory conditions, including asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis, comprised about 8 percent of the cases. Many are reported by firefighters exposed to smoke and fire. Others were attributed to indoor air quality, mold, bleach, latex, ammonia and dust.

Hearing loss numbers went down by 6 percent from the previous year, but remain a concern. There were 179 reports of hearing loss, mostly from manufacturing jobs but also from firefighting jobs due to exposure to loud sirens and equipment.

Public sector employees were more than twice as likely to report illness. Public sector illness rates were 46.3 cases per 10,000 workers compared with 22.9 cases per 10,000 workers in the private sector in Connecticut.

“People think of public sector as being a pretty safe business. But there are a lot of situations where it is pretty high risk, such as firefighters, health-care workers, and office workers who are using computers intensively,” Morse said. “There are also a lot of indoor air quality problems. Even jobs you don’t think about as much, like park and recreation workers, face exposure to ticks and Lyme Disease.”

The report also found that women filed 44 percent of all workers’ compensation claims, mostly for infectious diseases at 57 percent, stress at 53 percent, followed by musculoskeletal problems at 47 percent, and heart and hypertension at 19 percent.

For men, the biggest problems were heart and hypertension at 81 percent, then musculoskeletal at 53 percent, stress at 47 percent and infectious diseases at 43 percent.