stethoscopeLast week we received this new release: “A UC Davis researcher has estimated the national annual price tag of occupational injuries and illnesses at $250 billion, much higher than generally assumed.

“That figure is $31 billion more than the direct and indirect costs of all cancer, $76 billion more than diabetes and $187 billion more than strokes, according to the research.”

Do you believe the price tag?

Seems high to me. I’m not dissing the UC Davis researcher, who did a similar study in 1992. He obviously is committed and competent.

In generating the estimate, 2007 data was collected on occupational injuries and illnesses and their costs for U.S. civilian workers, including agricultural and self-employed workers.

Injury and disease data came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Available epidemiological research on the percentages of diseases -- such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer -- that can be attributed to occupational exposures was also considered. Research accounted for underreported illnesses and injuries using estimates based on reporting to the BLS and workers' compensation systems.

Cost data came from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project and the National Academy of Social Insurance. Total costs were calculated by multiplying the number of cases of occupational injury or illness by the average cost per case.

The study estimated 59,102 combined deaths from occupational injuries and diseases, which was higher than all deaths from motor vehicle crashes (43,945), breast cancer (40,970) or prostate cancer (29,093) in the same year.

In 2010, BLS reported 4,547 fatal work injuries.

That leaves about 55,000 deaths from occupational diseases. I conducted a quick Goggle search on annual occupational disease deaths and 55,000 came up several times in different references.

In many cases, it’s difficult to separate deaths caused by lifestyle factors (smoking, diet, exercise, heredity, drinking) from workplace exposures. That’s why all studies of occupational disease use the caveat “estimate.”

Figuring out the annual costs is even trickier, given the paucity of data.

Because of the softness of the occ disease numbers, they don’t get much press. So the temptation exists to estimate on the high side to grab attention.

For a long time I’ve thought the number of annual deaths due to workplace exposures, illnesses that can take decades to manifest, has been one of the great underreported stories of occupational safety and health.

Sadly, occupational health has always taken a backseat to occ safety, which is much more gruesomely black and white with its obvious cuts, bruises, broken bones, burns, amputations and stark fatalities. Occ health has always been more controversial, just look at arguments over musculoskeletal disorders and whether they are caused by jobs or non-work factors.

I understand the need for occ health to get more attention in the media and from public policymakers. But that $250 billion price tag will strike many as inflated, and that’s counter-productive.