According to a report by the United States Department of Labor, more than three million workers in the U.S. are severely injured in the workplace every year, and approximately 4,500 more lose their lives on the job. While the number of work related injuries, illnesses and fatalities may seem extraordinarily high, studies indicate that these numbers represent only a fraction of the actual incidents. This is due to the fact that many work related injuries are not reported by employers. Additionally, some chronic illnesses are not identified as work related because the illnesses occur long after exposure has ended. In fact, recent studies have indicated that approximately 50,000 workers lose their lives in the United States each year due to exposure to hazardous agents in the workplace.
Unfortunately, despite the laws surrounding workers’ compensation insurance; which were originally designed to protect workers and their families, injured workers and their families are often left to pay most of the costs associated with their injuries. Since the financial impact of these injuries are often huge, many workers are even forced to seek assistance from taxpayer supported programs in order to make ends meet.
Changes in workers’ compensation insurance programs have not only made it more difficult for many workers to obtain benefits, but they have also made it so that employers now only provide a small portion of the total costs (about 20 percent) associated with workplace injuries and illnesses through workers’ comp. This cost shift creates a devastating trap that forces many middle class Americans into poverty, and prevents lower-income families from reaching middle class.
A recent study by ProPublica analyzed insurance industry data, state laws, and medical and court documents in order to provide an unprecedented look at the effects of the changes in workers’ compensation throughout the nation. The study found that:
- An alarming 33 states have passed laws since 2003 that have reduced benefits or that make it more difficult for injured workers to obtain benefits for their injuries or illnesses. A recent study revealed that injured workers n New Mexico, for example, typically receive 15 percent less in wages over a 10 year period after they are injured, and an injured Oklahoma tire factory worker suffered such a significant loss in income that he and his family were evicted from their home.
- The location of the injury can have a huge impact on the amount of benefits that injured workers can obtain. In Alabama, for instance, the loss of an eye can result in a maximum benefit of only $27,280, while in Pennsylvania, that same injury can result in compensation of up to $261,525.
- Many states have not only reduced the amounts that injured workers can receive through workers’ comp insurance, they have put a time limit on benefit payouts as well.
- Insurers and employers are increasingly controlling serious medical decisions such as whether a worker needs surgery or other future treatment for his or her injury. In fact, injured workers cannot choose their own medical provider or are forced to choose their provider from a list in a disturbing 37 states.
- In some states, the laws are retroactive, meaning that old cases can be reopened, which often results in a reduction of benefits for injured workers. In some situations, future medical care is even denied by the opinions of doctors who never see the patients.
The True Cost of Work Related Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities
While the National Safety Council estimated the cost of non-fatal and fatal work related injuries to be around $198 billion in 2012 alone, the actual costs are difficult to measure. For injured workers and their families, the losses can be devastating, and these losses tend to have an even greater impact on lower wage workers, who are at a higher risk for work related injuries. For families who are already struggling to make ends meet or set aside money for savings, a severe injury to even a non-primary wage earner can cause serious hardship. Not only are other family members often forced to reduce their own work hours in order to provide care for the injured worker, but workplace injuries often cause low self-esteem and elevated stress levels in relationships.
Fortunately, worker’s compensation attorneys can not only help injured workers and their families obtain the maximum compensation for their losses, they can also help workers who are denied benefits appeal unfair decisions. Additionally, in some cases workers’ comp isn’t the only compensation that injured workers are eligible to receive. When a third party is partially at fault for an accident, that party can be held responsible and can be ordered to provide additional compensation. An experienced attorney can help injured workers and their families obtain adequate reimbursement for the costs associated with their injuries from all parties who may be at fault.