When we head out to work each day, we have a reasonable expectation that we’re going to be safe from harm.

We trust our employers to provide us with the proper equipment and training to protect us from injuries and illness. And we expect them to comply with certain safety standards set by the federal government.

Despite these safeguards woven into the law, accidents still occur and workers pay the price.

Every day, more than 7,000 Americans, on average, suffer a work-related injury or illness, and 14 workers per day are killed on the job.

Understanding your rights under the law can help you address an unsafe situation in your workplace before it leads to an injury. If you’ve been injured on the job, workers’ compensation will usually cover your medical expenses and lost wages. But in certain situations, other legal remedies may apply.

OSHA Protections

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is the federal agency tasked with protecting the health and safety of Americans in the workplace.

OSHA accomplishes this by enforcing the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The federal law is supposed to guarantee that your working environment is free of recognized health hazards, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise, mechanical dangers and other risks.

Under federal law, you have the right to:
  • Be provided with safety gear and equipment by your employer
  • Work on safe machines and equipment
  • Receive health and safety training in a language you understand
  • Be protected from chemical exposure
  • File a confidential complaint with OSHA and request an inspection of your workplace
  • Speak up about safety problems without fear of retaliation
  • Review logs and records of workplace injuries and illnesses
  • Receive copies of tests and monitoring of hazards in the workplace
  • Report an injury or illness

Most private sector employers fall under the jurisdiction of OSHA either directly or through what’s known as OSHA-approved State Plan.

Twenty-two states or territories have OSHA-approved state plans that cover private and state and local government workers. Six states operate state plans that cover only state and local government employees. State-run programs must be “at least as effective as” as OSHA in protecting worker safety.

If you don’t believe your employer is following OSHA standards, or if you suspect a serious hazard exists, you have the right to file a complaint. You can do this by filling out an online complaint form or by calling 1-800-321-OSHA or your OSHA regional or area office.

Workplace Injuries

Despite the protections of OSHA, millions of people are still injured on the job every year. Private employers reported 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a rate of 2.8 injuries for every 100 full-time employees.

Approximately 31 percent of those who were injured weren’t able to return to work right away. The average amount of lost time was eight days.

Accidents and injuries can occur in all kinds of jobs, but some industries, such as construction, warehousing, manufacturing and transportation, are particularly dangerous.

Jobs in those industries often require working at dangerous heights, which contributes to falls. They also often involve frequent contact with dangerous machinery, such as forklifts and tractors. Occupations that require frequent driving also have higher injury rates.

Non-Fatal Injuries and Illnesses by Occupation (2017)

Occupations Number of Injuries and Illness
Service 211,650
Transportation and material moving 178,270
Production 98,320
Installation, maintenance and repair 82,690
Construction and extraction 74,560
Office and administrative support 63,140
Sales and related 55,480
Health care practitioners and technical 49,230
Management, business and financial 26,320
Education, legal, community service, arts and media 22,260
Farming, fishing, forestry 14,760
Computer, engineering, science 5,680

Source: National Safety Council

But even jobs that don’t seem inherently risky on the surface can pose dangers.

Hospital workers, for instance, have a higher rate of injury and illness than employees who work in manufacturing and construction, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s because nurses, patient care technicians and other health care workers often incur sprains, strains and other injuries related to lifting and moving patients.

Types of Injuries

Injuries related to slipping, tripping and falling make up a significant percentage of workplace injuries, according to OSHA — and the injuries can be devastating. Workers can end up with painful sprains, cuts, bruises or broken bones. Some end up dying from their injuries.

Aside from the physical pain of the injury, workers may grapple with depression and a reduced quality of life. Financial constraints caused by out-of-pocket medical expenses can make things even more difficult. Some workers may end up going on temporary or even permanent disability after such an injury.

Sadly, many times these injuries could have been prevented: A wet spill was not cleaned up, a loose rug was not picked up, damaged steps were never replaced, or uncovered wires or cables were blocking a walkway.

Each year, Liberty Mutual Insurance analyzes data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Academy of Social Insurance and workers’ compensation claims to rank the top 10 causes of serious, non-fatal workplace injuries.

According to the 2018 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the most disabling workplace injuries generated more than $58 billion in workers compensation claims.

Top 10 Most Disabling U.S. Workplace Injuries
  1. Overexertion (lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying or throwing)
  2. Falls on the same level
  3. Falls to a lower level, such as from a ladder or platform
  4. Being struck by an object or equipment
  5. Other exertions or bodily reaction (bending, twisting, reaching, climbing, kneeling)
  6. Roadway incidents (motor vehicle accidents)
  7. Slip or trip incidents that don’t involve fallin
  8. Being caught or compressed by equipment, such as gears or rollers
  9. Being struck against an object or piece of equipment
  10. Repetitive motions involving “microtasks,” such as on a manufacturing assembly line

Police officers, firefighters and other first responders who witness tragic or traumatic events may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The disorder may accompany a physical injury and can persist long after a person’s physical injuries have healed.

Workplace Deaths

Tragically, 5,147 people died on the job in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s an average of more than a dozen Americans per day.

Fatal Occupational Injuries (2017)
Transportation Incidents 2,077
Fall, slip, trip 887
Violence (including homicides and suicides) 695
Exposure to harmful substances or environments 531
Fire or explosion 123

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Of the 4,674 employees who died in private industry, approximately 21 percent worked in the construction industry. Nearly 60 percent of the construction worker deaths were attributed to what are known as the “fatal four” injuries:
  • Falls (39.2 percent)
  • Getting struck by objects (8.2 percent)
  • Getting electrocuted (7.3 percent)
  • Getting caught in, compressed, crushed by equipment and/or objects (5.1 percent)

OSHA estimates that eliminating the “fatal four” would save about 582 lives each year.
Transportation incidents claimed the most lives of workers in 2017, accounting for 40 percent of all worker deaths. Fatal falls accounted for 17 percent of deaths, which was the highest level of fall-related deaths since the government first began tracking these occupational deaths 26 years ago.

Workers’ Compensation

Most injured workers are covered by workers’ compensation plans. Workers’ compensation is a state-mandated insurance program that pays for employees’ medical care when they’re injured on the job.

Workers’ comp may also pay a portion of lost wages if an employee can’t work while recuperating from an injury. Workers’ compensation also pays death benefits and funeral and burial expenses when a person dies from a work-related injury or illness. The program does not reimburse for pain and suffering.

While most businesses are required to carry workers’ compensation coverage, specific requirements vary from state to state.

Workers’ compensation operates as a “no-fault” system, meaning insurance benefits are paid regardless of who was at fault in the situation. The only real requirement, per se, is that the illness or injury occurred on the job.

Workplace Injury Lawsuits

In most cases, workers’ compensation is the only recourse available to recover lost wages and medical expenses related to a workplace injury. Moreover, workers’ compensation is considered by most states to be an “exclusive remedy,” which means an employer is immune from lawsuits as long as the employer secures workers’ compensation coverage.

However, you may be entitled to file a lawsuit related to a workplace injury in some instances. If your employer has acted recklessly, or is grossly negligent, you may be able to file a lawsuit.

If your employer failed to provide protective safety equipment, for instance, that could serve as grounds for a lawsuit. You can also sue your employer if you are injured and your employer lacks workers’ compensation coverage.

Third Party Liability

If a defective product caused your injury or if someone else other than your employer or a co-worker was to blame, you may be able to file what’s known as a third-party liability suit.

For instance, if a faulty crane collapsed on a construction site and injured you, you might be able to sue the manufacturer of that crane. You may also be able to file a third-party liability claim if someone else created an unsafe working environment that caused your injury.

Likewise, if you were involved in a traffic accident while working and it was caused by someone else’s negligence, you may be able to sue the other driver.

An experienced attorney can you help you determine if a third party is responsible for your on-the-job accident and whether you can seek compensation.

Last Modified: May 16, 2019

20 Cited Research Articles

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