Study: Disparities in occupational injury highlight need for greater focus on hiring practices

Fewer economic opportunities may be exposing black and Hispanic workers to an increased risk of workplace injury, according to a new study.

Published this month in Health Affairs, the study set out to document differences in the risk of occupational injury and in the prevalence of work-related disabilities between white and minority workers. Researchers found that even after adjusting for variables such as education, sex and age, black and foreign-born Hispanic workers often worked in jobs with the highest injury risks and thus, experienced higher rates of work-related disabilities as well. In particular, the study found that black workers had the highest prevalence of work-related disability, at 2 percent, followed by foreign-born Hispanic workers, U.S.-born Hispanic workers, Asian workers and white workers. Foreign-born Hispanic workers experienced the highest expected workplace injury rates, but comparatively lower disability rates than black workers. White workers consistently experienced the lowest risk of workplace injury.

The study is based on two large Census Bureau data sets: the 2006-2013 American Community Survey and 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation. In all, researchers had data from more than 11 million respondents. As for their reasons for conducting the study, researchers Seth Seabury, Sophie Terp and Leslie Boden write:

Evidence is mixed about the association between race/ethnicity and workplace injury rates. Most evidence suggests that members of minority populations face higher workplace injury risk, compared to whites, although other studies have found no association. One reason this evidence is inconsistent might be that racial disparities in workplace injury risk are strongly influenced by differences in the availability of different types of jobs according to race and ethnicity.

For example, evidence suggests that immigrant Hispanic construction workers face elevated risk of fatal and nonfatal injuries, compared to native-born Hispanic or non-Hispanic workers. Previous work also indicates that the injury rate among non-Hispanic black workers is higher than it would be if they worked the same hours as non-Hispanic white workers. Analyses of specific occupational diseases, including lung cancer and silicosis, have also shown racial disparities in the incidence of disease. However, more work is needed to understand disparities in workplace injury risk and these disparities’ longer-term consequences for minority populations.

The researchers found that male foreign-born Hispanic workers had higher expected workplace injury rates than white men, at 13.7 per 1,000 versus 11.8 per 1,000. However, among both men and women, there was little difference in the expected workplace injury rates between whites, U.S-born Hispanics and Asians. Among workers ages 18 to 29, foreign-born Hispanics experienced higher work-related disability prevalence than whites. Among workers age 50 to 64, all minority groups experienced higher work-related disability rates than whites. For instance, 4.4 percent of black workers in that age group had a work-related disability, compared to 2.5 percent of white workers. Overall, the expected workplace injury rate was positively linked with the prevalence of work-related disability.

Noting that their study revealed “systematic disparities” in the risk of getting injured on the job, the researchers said such findings suggest that differences in economic opportunity may be exposing minority workers to greater occupational hazards. They write:

Occupational safety and health professionals have historically focused on identifying policies and practices that induce employers to improve conditions for current workers, either voluntarily or because of pressure from government regulators, and not on hiring practices. Although improving work conditions could be of great value, it would not directly address discrimination-based disparities in workplace injury risk. Based on our findings, policymakers and regulators may need to review whether employers are systematically assigning people of different races and ethnicities different jobs or job tasks according to the risk.

Request a full copy of the study at Health Affairs.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.

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