By Mark Leung, BWC Technical Medical Specialist,
Recently promoted from the BWC Safety & Hygiene Fellowship program
Occupational health and safety has been a public health focus for many years. Emphasizing worker protection and well-being advances the overall goal of reducing negative health outcomes in the future. The need to address health disparities within the working population is paramount to public health practitioners. In doing so, there have been many discussions about the actual costs of an injury or illness. However, is there a true quantifiable cost an occupational injury or illness creates?
We typically link occupational injuries and illnesses with their financial burden in the form of direct and indirect costs. Direct costs of an injury or illness relates to the medical treatment and rehabilitation of the worker, workers’ compensation costs and legal expenses. Indirect costs may include: lost productivity, training and compensating replacement workers, repairing damaged property, low employee morale, poor community relations, reputation, penalties, etc. The indirect costs of injuries and illnesses vary widely, and may be up to 20 times higher than direct costs.1
These costs are usually in the economic frame of reference for the employer. However, we must not lose sight of the social costs of an occupational injury or illness on the individual, community and societal level. Depending on the severity of the injury or illness, the worker’s quality of life suffers on the individual level. Quality of life goes beyond physical limitations, such as psychological well-being, social interactions and other non-work activities. In some cases, the diminished quality of life is a permanent reality as it influences the worker’s health behaviors and health trajectory for the rest of their lives.
Additionally, the lasting effect of the injury or illness can cause a ripple in an individual’s network. The quality of life for family members and friends may be diminished if they are involved in social interactions and the caregiving process with the affected worker. Even as part of their profession, caregivers and medical professionals carry a burden as a part of the treatment and rehabilitation portion of the process. Every social factor the worker experiences influences the community level in some shape or form. The summation of social costs may influence societal systems, including:
- Stressing social safety nets;
- Changing retirement trends;
- Shaping laws and regulations;
- Use of medical resources;
- Changing population health outcomes.
The societal level offers us a call for action in the form of prevention, rather than a reactive approach.
The burden of an occupational injury or illness does not just fall on a worker and the employer. It is truly a social issue that has an impact on multiple layers of society. While it may be difficult to quantify a complete cost of an occupational injury or illness, our efforts to proactively address workplace risks and safeguard worker well-being as public health practitioners remain. Thus, it is ever so important to embrace occupational health and safety beyond the workplace.