What happens every 7 seconds: A workplace injury

Injured on the job? Well, you're not alone. An American worker is injured every seven seconds, 12,900 workers per day and 4.7 million a year, according to the National Safety Council. With the workforce expanding by 160,000 in April and a new class of college graduates joining the hunt, that figure could climb.

It's particularly true for younger workers who are just starting out in a new job. "More than one-quarter of injuries occur in the first year of employment," said Rich Ives, vice president of workers' compensation for Travelers Insurance.

American industry is in a multigenerational vise. About a third of all workers are fairly young, in the 18- to 34-year-old group. "Teenagers getting their licenses do have a high rate of accidents," noted Ives. And another third is getting older, with 55-plus workers growing all the time and experiencing more sprains and strains.

Travelers just released a five-year "Injury Impact Report" of 1.5 million workers' compensation claims in an effort to pinpoint where, why and how injuries occur -- and how much they cost. Workers' compensation insurance is a good barometer for serious injuries, because it pays when someone is hurt at work or acquires an occupational disease because of their previous job, such as black lung or mesothelioma. It covers serious injuries that require medical treatment, wage replacement and vocational rehabilitation.

As one of the largest workers' compensation insurers, Travelers found that injuries can occur in any business or occupation. The most commonplace were simple ones such as lifting, lowering or carrying something, and the most likely consequence was a strain, sprain, bruise or inflammation. These covered nearly one-third of all claims.

Next were slips, trips and falls at 16 percent, and further down was being struck or colliding with something. Accidents involving tools and "cumulative trauma," where a part of the body was repeatedly overused, were found even less.

While tool accidents were minor, they were still among the top five in all industries, and small businesses suffered the most from these accidents.

As might be expected, construction workers experienced the highest rate of falls, but -- one surprise -- oil and gas employees were in the only industry to have motor vehicle accidents among its top five most common injuries. Eye injuries were among the most likely in construction and manufacturing.

Inflammation was more common than fractures as a reason for the most days off from the job, with an average of 91 compared to 78. Strains and sprains cost employers an average of 57 days off the job for the employee.

Major injuries were the least common but costliest, with an amputation costing well over $100,000. Dislocation of a limb was just over $97,000, and electric shock was third at around $55,000. But overall, dislocations and amputations cost most industries the biggest amount. By contrast, the average cost of a sprain or a strain was only $17,000.

The overall cost of injuries to American business, including 10,000 annual fatalities, is about $170 billion, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

The good news, at least from Travelers' perspective, is that the frequency of claims for policies that the insurer writes has slightly decreased. But the bad news that prompts Travelers to try to do better is -- no surprise -- medical costs. Ives said 60 percent of all compensation costs are medical-related, and that figure is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2019.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.