Fewer work-related injuries reported in New Hampshire, but the data is far from complete

The number of injuries handled through workers compensation programs in New Hampshire has been declining steadily for more than a decade, but complexities of the reporting process means that it’s hard to say what is actually happening with workplace injuries overall.

“They’re going down, but we don’t really know if they really are going down,” is how Karla Armenti, principal investigator in the state’s Occupational Health Surveillance Program, commonly called referred to as OSHA, described the situation.

Armenti is the lead author of the report “Occupational Injury and Illness in New Hampshire: 2000-2013 Data Report to Inform Programs and Policies.”

It reported that injuries in the workers compensation system fell from 57,000 in 2001 to 39,000 in 2013, a decline of fully one-third. Benefits paid out through the workers compensation system also fell, from $250 million in 2008, the earliest date in the report, to $229 million in 2012.

But Armenti cautioned that this data is incomplete, because many workers, such as contractors and other self-employed workers, are not covered by workers compensation.

Even in places where coverage is offered, she said, many injuries are not reported. Armenti pointed to a program called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that found in a survey of several thousand employees who said they had been injured at work, “over 50 percent said that workers comp did not pay for their injury” for a variety of reasons.

New Hampshire does not pay to participate in a program from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called the Survey of Occupational Injury and Illness, which could fill in gaps because it gathers more complete data about injuries in private businesses.

“We have to use workers comp as our proxy,” she said.

But Armenti said there were good reasons to suspect that workplace injuries has gone down in recent years, including the fact that New Hampshire has fewer dangerous occupations.

“Construction has definitely declined, probably by a third, over the past 10 years in New Hampshire,” she said. “Manufacturing over the years has become more automated there’s less activity in the more hazardous industries.”

On the other hand, she said, employment is rising in health care, which has a surprising number of workplace injuries.

“There are high injury rates among nurses, especially in handling patients,” she said.

“Things have definitely gotten better since the institutionalization of occupational safety and health standards … but along with data, you need to get the stories behind it, to understand the context,” she said. “We need to keep doing more and better research to uncover the true (picture).”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531, dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com or @GraniteGeek.