1 Autumn 1992 (Vol. 4, No. 3) Article No. 4 Back injuries at work, Cynthia Haggar-Guénette and Joanne Proulx Work injuries not only cause physical, financial and emotional hardships for workers and their families, but they also reduce employee productivity and morale. Each year, Workers' Compensation Boards in Canada accept more than half a million time-loss claims due to work accidents. More than one-quarter of these claims are for back injuries. (1) Work-related back injuries may be caused, for example, by a single instance of overexertion or develop as a result of repeated motion over time. All workers, however, are not equally likely to sustain back injuries, as some occupations and industries expose men and women to greater risks than do others. This article traces the pattern of growth in the number of back-injury claims accepted by Workers' Compensation Boards during the last decade. It also outlines the characteristics of workers filing those claims, and describes the nature of their injuries and the circumstances in which they occurred. (2) Most common injury Throughout the past decade, back injuries accounted for more Workers' Compensation claims than injuries to any other body part. In 1990, for example, Workers' Compensation Boards across Canada paid lost time benefits to workers for 164,000 back injuries. (3) The next most common claims were for hand, wrist or finger injuries (122,000). The number of other time-loss claims ranged from 56,000 for foot, ankle or toe injuries down to 25,000 for injuries to the chest, hips or abdomen (Chart A). Chart A Back injuries were the most frequently compensated claims in Source: National Work Injuries Statistics Program file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (1 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
2 During the 1980s, claims for back injuries rose faster than claims for other injuries. Back-injury claims grew 33% between 1982 and 1990, while other injury claims increased only 18%. Thus, back injuries constituted a gradually rising share of compensated work injuries: 28% in 1990, compared with 26% in (Note: The drop in claims for all types of injuries between 1989 and 1990 (Table 1) may be partly attributed to plant closures and layoffs stemming from the economic recession.) (4) Table 1 Time-loss claims by sex, 1982 to 1990.* Source: National Work Injuries Statistics Program * The Yukon is excluded from work injuries data. Men make most back-injury claims Far more men than women suffer work-related back injuries (121,000 compared with 42,000 in 1990). This undoubtedly reflects the concentration of men in industries and occupations where accidents tend to occur. In 1990, men accounted for 74% of all time-loss back-injury claims, although they comprised 54% of paid workers (5) (Chart B). Chart B In 1990, men accounted for three-quarters of back injuries, but just over half of paid workers. Source: National Work Injuries Statistics Program and Labour Force Survey However, among people filing claims, women were more likely than men to have injured their backs. Nearly one-third of women's time-loss claims in 1990 were for back injuries, compared with just over one-quarter of men's claims. As well, women's share of back-injury claims increased throughout the 1980s. By 1990, 26% of backinjury claims were made by women, compared with just 18% in 1982 (Table 1). Much of this rise mirrors the increase in women's labour force participation, as well as expansion of Workers' Compensation coverage to the service sector, (6) where many women are employed and where most of their claims file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (2 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
3 originate. Different age patterns for men and women Overall, back-injury claims tend to be made by younger workers. But this general trend is a reflection of men's back injuries, which constitute three-quarters of all claims. In fact, the ages at which male and female workers are likely to experience back injuries differ. The majority of male workers who made back-injury claims in 1990 were under age 35. That year, 37% of men with back-injury claims were aged 25 to 34, surpassing the proportion of employed men in this age range (29%). Another 17% were aged 15 to 24, roughly the same as their share of paid workers (18%). On the other hand, fewer than half (46%) of men making back-injury claims were aged 35 and over, although 53% of employed men were in this age group (Table 2). Table 2 Back-injury time-loss claims and paid workers by selected characteristics, Source: National Work Injuries Statistics Program and Labour Force Survey Men make most back-injury claims Women making back-injury claims tend to be older. Fully 54% of women with back injuries were aged 35 and over, whereas this age group represented 50% of female workers. Just under a third (31%) of women with back-injury claims were aged 25 to 34, closely matching the proportion of female workers in this age group (30%). The remaining 15% of women making claims were aged 15 to 24, even though this age group represented 20% of female workers. Overexertion is main cause In 1990, almost all back injuries were sprains or strains (83%). Another 5% were impact injuries, while a variety of other conditions, such as inflammations and multiple injuries, made up the remaining 12%. Overexertion was the major cause of back injuries (Chart C). Nearly two-thirds (63%) of all job-related back injuries sustained by both men and women in 1990 were due to overexertion, usually while lifting heavy objects. (7) Another 17% of back injuries were the result of specific movements (for example, file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (3 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
4 stretching to move a patient in bed) or involuntary movements (for instance, recovering from a slip on a wet floor). Falls accounted for about 12% of all back injuries. Most of the falls experienced by women were from the same level (onto floors or against objects), but about half of those experienced by men were from elevations, such as ladders, stairs, or vehicles. Chart C In 1990, most back injuries resulted from overexertion. Source: National Work Injuries Statistics Program Risk related to industry Not surprisingly, back-injury claims are distributed unevenly among industries because of variations in the physical effort required to produce different goods and services. In addition, coverage of workers in high-risk industries, such as forestry and construction, may vary by province. In 1990, 29% of back-injury claims originated in manufacturing, although these industries employed just 17% of the paid workforce. The pattern was similar in health and social services, (8) the source of 13% of claims, but just 10% of the paid workforce. As well, in construction, the proportion of claims for back injuries (9%) exceeded that industry's share of paid workers (6%). By contrast, industries normally associated with little physical effort accounted for relatively few backinjury claims. For instance, the proportion of claims originating in education (2%) was far surpassed by the percentage of workers employed in this industry (7%). Injury-prone occupations Of course, the probability of experiencing a back injury is directly linked to a worker's occupation and the related daily tasks. Much of the difference in the prevalence of back-injury claims among industries, and indeed, between men and women, is attributable to the clustering of occupations within industries and also to the relative concentration of men and women in these occupations. Among men, six blue-collar occupation groups accounted for over 70% of back-injury claims: product fabricating, assembling and repairing; construction trades; transport equipment operating; material handling; processing; and machining. However, together these occupations represented only 39% of male workers. More specifically, back-injury claims were most common among men employed in occupations that file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (4 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
5 involve lifting, for example, truck drivers, (9) longshoremen, construction labourers, and motor vehicle mechanics and repairmen. By contrast, back injuries were rare among men in most white-collar occupations. For instance, just 1% of back-injury claims were made by men in managerial or administrative positions, whereas 15% of male workers were employed in these occupations. The pattern was similar in natural sciences, social sciences, and teaching, as well as in clerical and sales occupations. Among women, the distribution of back-injury claims by occupation differed from that of men. Fully 33% of women with claims for back injuries in 1990 worked in health-related occupations, far above the proportion of female workers employed in this occupation group (10%). Service occupations accounted for another 22% of back-injury claims made by women, whereas 15% of women worked in such jobs. And although few women have blue-collar occupations, they represented a relatively large share of back injuries. In 1990, 15% of the women who made back-injury claims worked in product fabricating, assembling and repairing, processing, or material handling, yet just 6% of female workers were employed in these occupations. As is the case for men, back injuries tend to be experienced by women in jobs that require considerable physical exertion. For instance, nurses, chefs and cooks, waitresses, janitors and cleaners accounted for relatively large shares of women's back-injury claims. A small number of back-injury claims in some occupations does not necessarily mean that few workers are being injured. Instead, it may reflect a low level of coverage by Workers' Compensation. For example, many workers in beauty and barber shops, and laundries and cleaners are excluded from coverage under some provincial Workers' Compensation Acts. Summary Throughout the 1980s, back injuries increased faster than other compensable injuries, so that by 1990 they constituted 28% of time-loss claims. Despite rapid growth in the number of women filing such claims, they were still far outnumbered by men. Men in blue-collar occupations such as fabricating, assembling and repairing, construction trades, transport equipment operating, and material handling were over-represented among back-injury claimants. On the other hand, among women those working in health-related and service occupations accounted for the highest proportions of back injuries. Given the nature of work in these occupations, it is not surprising that the majority of these injuries were sprains or strains due to overexertion. file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (5 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
6 Time-loss injury claims A time-loss work injury or illness is one that is serious enough for an individual to take time off work to recover. Time-loss injuries and illnesses may result from accidents, the environment, or specific working conditions. Employees injured at work must apply to provincial Workers' Compensation Boards to receive compensation for lost wages. The level of compensation differs by province. The National Work Injuries Statistics Program (NWISP) collects data from administrative records on time-loss claims accepted by all Workers' Compensation Boards in Canada, except the Yukon. NWISP publishes the age and sex of an injured worker, the occupation and industry, the nature and source of the injury, the body part injured, and the accident that resulted in the injury. Data are not collected on the benefits paid to injured workers, and claims for medical expenses that did not involve time off work are excluded. Notes Note 1 Back injuries include injuries to the back muscles, spine, spinal cord, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, sacrum and coccyx. Note 2 No national data are available on the number of days lost from work specifically because of back injuries. The Absence from Work Survey (AWS), an annual supplement to Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey, collects data on all work absences of two or more weeks. According to the AWS, 49% of individuals receiving Workers' Compensation in 1990 were absent from work for two to five weeks. (Contact Mike Sivyer at (613) for more information.) In addition, Labour Canada (1991) estimates that in the 1990s, injured workers will lose an average of 30 days per year for work-related accidents or illnesses. Little national information is available on the cost of back injuries to Workers' Compensation Boards or to workers sustaining these injuries. Labour Canada publishes the cost of benefits paid to injured workers for medical aid, hospitalization, pensions, and lost earnings, but does not have such data for back injuries specifically. Approximately $1.8 billion was paid by Workers' Compensation Boards for lost earnings (time-loss claims) out of a total of $3.9 billion in total benefits paid in 1989 (Labour Canada, 1991). According to Statistics Canada's General Social Survey, in 1987, injured workers spent an average of $1,112 per work accident on non-reimbursable out-of-pocket expenses (Millar and Adams, 1991). file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (6 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
7 Note 3 Not all work injuries are reported to Workers' Compensation Boards. The General Social Survey found that fewer than half of work accidents causing injury were reported to Workers' Compensation in 1987 (unpublished data). Decisions by supervisors, health staff, or workers themselves, in addition to the paperwork involved, may result in non-reporting (Webb et al., 1989). Note 4 The drop in work injuries in 1990 is partly attributable to the decline in manufacturing jobs in Ontario and Quebec. Note 5 Paid workers are working owners of incorporated businesses or employed persons who work in an employer-employee relationship. Note 6 Since the early 1980s, several provinces have extended universal coverage to hospitals and other healthrelated organizations. Note 7 A summary of guidelines for weight limits when manually lifting objects is given in Drewczynski (1989). For a discussion of repetitive motion injuries, see Bertolini and Drewczynski (1990), and for a discussion of injuries among women, see Messing (1991). Note 8 See "Focus on three occupations in hospitals" in the highlights section of Work injuries, (Statistics Canada, December 1991). Note 9 See "Focus on truck drivers" in the highlights section of Work injuries, (Statistics Canada, February 1991). References Bertolini, R. and A. Drewczynski. Repetitive motion injuries (RMI), Catalogue CC273-2/90-21E. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Drewczynski, A. "Manual materials handling" (draft). Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Occupational file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (7 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
8 Health and Safety, April Unpublished study. Haggar-Guénette, C. "Work injuries in Canada, 1982 to 1986." The labour force, Monthly, Catalogue , March Ottawa: Statistics Canada, pp Labour Canada. Occupational injuries and their cost in Canada, , Catalogue L /91B. Ottawa: Occupational Health and Safety Branch, Messing, K. Occupational safety and health concerns of Canadian women: a background paper, Catalogue L /91E. Ottawa: Women's Bureau, Labour Canada, Millar, W. and O. Adams. Accidents in Canada. General Social Survey Analysis Series, No. 3, Catalogue E. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, February Statistics Canada. Work injuries, , Annual, Catalogue Ottawa, February Work injuries, , Annual, Catalogue Ottawa, December Webb, G.R., S. Redman, C. Wilkinson and R.W. Sanson-Fisher. "Filtering effects in reporting work injuries." Accident analysis and prevention, Vol. 21, no. 2, Great Britain, 1989, pp Author Cynthia Haggar-Guénette and Joanne Proulx is with the Labour Division of Statistics Canada. Source Perspectives on Labour and Income, Autumn 1992, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Statistics Canada, Catalogue E). This is the fourth of five articles in the issue. file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/Pe9234.htm (8 of 8) [5/31/01 10:19:18 AM]
10 TE92341 Table 1 Time-loss claims by sex, 1982 to 1990* Work injuries Back injuries Total** Men Women Total** Men Women Source: National Work Injuries Statistics Program * The Yukon is excluded from work injuries data. ** Includes claims where sex was not reported. file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/table/te92341.htm [5/31/01 10:20:19 AM]
12 TE92342 Table 2 Back-injury time-loss claims and paid workers by selected characteristics, 1990 Back injuries Paid workers Total Men Women Total Men Women All ages ( 000) 162* ,353 6,179 5,174 (%) years years years years years and over All industries ( 000) 163** ,353 6,179 5,174 (%) Agriculture, fishing, forestry, and mining Manufacturing Construction Transportation, communication and other utilities Trade Finance, insurance and real estate Education Health and social services Accommodation, food and beverage services Business services and other services Government services All occupations ( 000) ,353 6,179 5,174 (%) Managerial and administrative Natural science Social science Religion file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/table/te92342.htm (1 of 2) [5/31/01 10:20:49 AM]
13 TE92342 Teaching Medicine and health Artistic Clerical Sales Service Farming, fishing, forestry, and mining Processing Machining Fabricating, assembling and repairing Construction trades Transport equipment operating Material handling Other crafts Sources: National Work Injuries Statistics Program and Labour Force Survey * Excludes 2,072 claims where age was not reported. ** Excludes 1,286 claims where industry was not reported. Excludes 21,655 claims where occupation was not reported. file:///n /LHSBR/LHSAD/PERSPECT/table/te92342.htm (2 of 2) [5/31/01 10:20:49 AM]
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