The workers’ compensation system can be used for more than processing work-related illness or injury insurance claims. The data collected through this system provide valuable information to identify how these injuries and illnesses happen, so that they can be prevented.
In recent years, use of workers’ compensation injury and illness data in the public health field has grown. However, occupational exposure data (also known as industrial hygiene data) collected by many workers’ compensation insurers is understudied. If analyzed, these data may help identify priority hazards and trends over time because the data include worker exposures to different types of stressors:
The data could also be used to develop strategies for controlling exposures that would improve worker health.
How to make workers’ compensation occupational exposure data more useful
Collecting occupational exposure data is resource- and time-intensive. Many workers’ compensation insurers collect this information for their own purposes, including as a service to their customers for evaluating compliance with government regulations. While most insurers use the data only for internal purposes, the data could be used more broadly among these businesses and by occupational health researchers.
Workers’ compensation exposure data could be more usable if there were improvements to:
- Data storage (e.g. use of electronic and centralized databases with retention of all records)
- Standardization of data collection
- Collaboration between researchers and the insurers
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently published two articles on different aspects of the occupational exposure data collection practices among workers’ compensation insurers:
- In the first article, a short survey was used to determine how state-based and private workers’ compensation insurers collect, store, and use their occupational exposure data. The information gained from the survey responses is a first step in learning what occupational exposure data might exist within these insurance companies. The online survey, which was completed by 28 insurers, included the following questions (as well as others) and generated the findings below.
What We Found
Does your organization provide industrial hygiene (IH) [referred to above as “occupational exposure”] services to policyholders?
All of the private insurers and the majority of state-based insurers provided some type of IH services (air or noise monitoring).
Does your organization have a list of data elements that must be collected when performing IH monitoring (e.g. job title, exposure duration, sampling method, etc.)?
The majority of insurers had a list of data elements for their hygienists to collect when monitoring, however, the data elements collected differed among the insurers.
Has your organization’s IH data ever been used by outside people or agencies (e.g. people affiliated with universities, government agencies, etc.)?
Among the insurers, only 20% had provided their data to those outside their company.
- The second article focused on standardization of exposure information among workers’ compensation insurers. A review panel of industrial hygienists from research institutes and private companies evaluated air and noise sampling data collection forms from 10 organizations. Data fields within the forms were ranked on how essential they were considered.
Among the air and noise sampling data collection forms:
- Approximately 55% of all data fields were ranked as essential.
- While 75% of data fields related to worker and control observations were ranked as essential, these same fields were found on less than 50% of the data collection forms.
Where do we go from here?
Next steps to improve the use of these occupational exposure data may include:
- Encourage insurance companies to share or pool their occupational exposure data for use outside of their organization. Pooling data within a company, and among several companies, would benefit exposure surveillance and may help insurers provide better service to their customers.
- Expand researcher and insurance company collaboration to advance occupational exposure data accessibility and application. There is a demand for efficient and affordable electronic data management systems tailored to insurance companies’ data collection needs.
- Identify which substances or agents are most commonly monitored by insurers (and collect more detail on insurers’ occupational exposure data sampling practices). Another recent article highlighted workers’ compensation risk control practices and data, which ties into the information provided in our two articles.
What do you believe are the benefits and pitfalls of using workers’ compensation insurers’ occupational exposure data in research?
How do you think collection, storage, and use of this kind of data could be improved?
How can workers’ compensation insurers benefit from expanding the uses of occupational exposure data?
“Workers’ Compensation Insurance: A Primer for Public Health” discusses how workers’ compensation records are valuable for filling gaps in knowledge on occupational hazards.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has an informational booklet on industrial hygiene, providing a general overview of the IH field.