Why Are Workplace Injuries and Fatalities On the Rise in New York?

Why Are Workplace Injuries and Fatalities On the Rise in New York?

By James A. Parrott | Center of New York City Affairs

Earning a living in New York’s private sector is steadily and seriously becoming more hazardous.

Nearly 200,000 workers are injured annually in New York State. As the figure below indicates, the incidence of workplace injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers has increased in New York State over the past three years and was a quarter higher than the national rate in 2022 (the most recent annual data). It also shows that the state’s workplace injury rates are up since 2019, and exceed U.S. levels.

New York workplace fatalities have averaged 250 annually over the past decade, more than 10 percent greater than in the first decade of this century. Most workplace injuries occur in predominantly low-wage industries or in industries, like construction, which hire many low-wage workers. Nursing homes, warehouses, hospitals, food manufacturing, and hotels have the highest incidence of workplace injuries. Statewide, immigrants hold over one-third of all jobs in many higher-than-average injury-prone low-wage industries.

Two recent reports spell out the hazards facing all too many New York workers. A February report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that the injury rate per 100 full-time warehouse workers in New York State more than doubled from 3.6 in 2017 to 8.8 in 2022. For 2022, this meant that the warehouse injury rate was one injury for every 11 workers.

This is truly scandalous given the 120 percent increase in New York’s warehouse workforce over that five-year period due to the rapid growth in e-commerce. The number of New York warehouse injuries jumped five-fold between 2017 and 2022. The most common warehouse injuries include sprains and lower back injuries.

The rapid rise in warehouse injuries has come in a period when Amazon and other large retailers have opened large facilities in New York where package flow is fast-paced and workers are closely monitored to ensure maximum productivity with little regard for their health and safety. A 2023 University of Illinois survey of Amazon workers from across the country found that 41 percent reported experiencing on-the-job injuries; 69 percent had needed to take unpaid time off due to pain or exhaustion in the month before being surveyed.

Construction is an even more hazardous job. Citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) In February reported that there were 24 construction worker fatalities in New York City in 2022, up from 20 the year before and the same number as in pre-pandemic 2019, when New York City construction employment was 13 percent greater. While construction accounted for 3.1 percent of all jobs in the city in 2022, the industry accounted for over a quarter of the 83 occupational fatalities in the city that year.

NYCOSH reports that Latinx workers experienced a disproportionate percentage of New York’s construction fatalities and that, generally, immigrant workers pay a high price for employers who willfully violate safety and health regulations. Immigrant workers are less likely to report safety violations out of fear of retaliation from employers and government agencies, according to NYCOSH.

Workplace health and safety has suffered in other occupations, too. Partly as a result of staffing shortages, BLS incidence rates for nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses in hospitals more than doubled in New York hospitals from 2018 to 2022 and rose by 94 percent in nursing homes. In 2022, hospitals recorded 13,700 cases of workers missing one or more days of work due to occupational injury – the highest number in any industry. The retail industry had the second-highest number (10,200) of such cases.

New York State’s workers’ compensation system serves a dual function: to cover the medical care for injured workers and compensate them for lost earnings, and also to ensure that businesses responsibly invest in minimizing workplace injuries and illnesses. Clearly, it hasn’t been fulfilling that duty in recent years. Nor has it been doing enough to care for workers injured on the job.

Under workers’ compensation, injured workers receive an indemnity benefit (compensation for lost earnings separate from payment for medical costs) equal to a maximum of two-thirds of their prior year’s average weekly wages. When physical impairment from a workplace injury is less than 100 percent, benefits are adjusted accordingly. So relatively few workers receive maximum benefits. Legislative changes over the past two decades have made some adjustments in benefit levels but generally have reduced disability payments by capping benefit duration at 10 years for permanent partial disability and at 2.5 years for temporary disability – without regard for whether the worker has actually recovered.

Benefit payments are also woefully inadequate, falling far short of lost earnings and posing an extra hardship on low-wage workers. Minimum and maximum benefits also trail those in neighboring states by about one-third.

In addition, administrative changes over the past 15 years have substantially added to the number and complexity of claim forms, medical reports for health care providers, and incident reports for employers. This has made the system considerably less transparent and harder to access by many low-wage and immigrant workers, particularly those less than fluent in English. The Workers’ Compensation Board also has shifted away from holding hearings and toward issuing non-hearing decisions, leaving many workers without opportunities to seek clarity regarding their cases and rights.

Although the workers’ comp system doesn’t work well for workers, it delivers for workers’ comp insurers. Employer costs for workers’ compensation are about one percent of total employee compensation. Yet, insurance profits have soared while payments for indemnity and medical costs have fallen in absolute and relative terms. From 2014-2021, the total dollar amount of benefits fell nearly a third while insurance profits doubled to $1 billion annually. When investment gains are added to the excess of premium revenue over benefit and administrative costs, total workers comp profits averaged $2.1 billion annually for the five years ending in 2021.

Reforms are long overdue. New York’s minimum and maximum weekly benefit levels should be increased, adjusting them to reflect a worker’s earnings potential had they not been injured on the job (as urged by national experts on workers’ comp insurance).

The State Workers’ Compensation Board, the State Labor Department, and the State Insurance Fund (a quasi-state agency that is the workers’ comp insurer of last resort and that has a $10 billion surplus) also should get serious about working with employers to reduce workplace injuries.

For high-risk industries targeted measures are warranted. A proposed “Warehouse Worker Injury Reduction Act” would mandate effective worker training to prevent musculoskeletal injury and worker health and safety committees to address workplace hazards. It would grant the Labor Department additional powers and budget resources to implement and enforce the act and establish a private right of action to allow employees to directly enforce their rights.

To improve construction workplace safety, NYCOSH recommends stepped-up safety inspections by the currently under-staffed City Department of Buildings, tougher penalties for criminally negligent construction companies, and expanded criminal prosecutions. Tailored approaches are also needed in other high-injury sectors to alleviate New York’s epidemic of workplace injuries.

James A. Parrott is director of economic and fiscal policies at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

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