Adding Inequality to Injury: The Cost of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job,” is a recently released 20-page OSHA report that has the agency jumping into the national debate about income inequality and raising the federal minimum wage.

OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels wrote in a related blog posted on the agency’s website in March that workplace injuries and illness contribute to income inequality in ways that have been overlooked in political and media discussions. A recent study cited in OSHA’s report found that workers in New Mexico who receive workers’ compensation benefits for wage loss caused by workplace injuries lose an average of 15 percent of the earnings they would have been expected to earn during the ten years following the injury. Even with workers’ compensation benefits, injured workers’ incomes are, on average, almost $31,000 lower during those 10 years than if they had not been injured.

OSHA says these costs have a greater impact on lower-wage workers. The agency says that following a worker injury, family caregivers must often reduce their own hours of work and wages to care for a disabled partner or family member. “For working families already struggling to meet basic necessities and set aside some savings, a work injury to a primary wage earner can be especially devastating,” according to the report.

Loss of confidence, loss of income

The report, available on OSHA’s website, goes on to say, “Workplace injuries can diminish self-esteem and self-confidence, increase stress between spouses, children and other family members, and strain relations with friends, colleagues and supervisors. These indirect costs can translate into tangible economic costs, including lower wages.”

Many lower-wage jobs are also high-hazard jobs, and low-wage workers are injured on the job at a disproportionate rate, OSHA states. “Stagnant wages have forced some wage earners, especially those supporting a family, into holding two or more jobs… long work days lead to worker fatigue and increase the risk of both work-related and non-work-related injuries, as well as of motor vehicle crashes,” the report states.

OSHA chief Michaels in his March 4 blog wrote that for many injured workers “the American dream quickly becomes a nightmare. These injuries and illnesses… force working families out of the middle class and into poverty, and keep the families of lower-wage workers from ever getting out.”

Shifting the burden

Changes in state-based workers’ compensation insurance programs have made it increasingly difficult for injured workers to receive the full benefits to which they are entitled, according to OSHA’s report. “Employers now provide only a small percentage (about 20 percent) of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries and illnesses. This cost-shift has forced injured workers, their families and taxpayers to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions,” states the report.

Dr. Michaels argues that “when employers are excused from this burden, worker safety and health often becomes less of a priority. This is especially important because preventing these injuries and illnesses in the first place would be the number one way to alleviate this type of suffering before it even begins.”