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Sep 19

Drug, alcohol impact on workers comp claims disputed

Often-quoted data on impaired workers disputed by experts

September 18, 2011 – 6:00am

Certain vendors, blogs, anti-drug groups and state agencies claim that drugs or alcohol are involved in 38% to 50% of all workers comp claims.
Certain vendors, blogs, anti-drug groups and state agencies claim that drugs or alcohol are involved in 38% to 50% of all workers comp claims.

There are service providers, bloggers, anti-drug organizations and even state agencies that claim alcohol or drugs are involved in up to half of workers compensation cases, but experts say the data appears to be bogus.

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What’s This?

Insurers, workers comp research organizations and federal workplace safety agencies say that neither they nor any group or agency they know of collects data on the number of comp claims where the use of drugs or alcohol is a factor.

Yet certain vendors, blogs, anti-drug groups and state agencies claim on their websites that drugs or alcohol are involved in 38% to 50% of all workers comp claims.

They typically attribute the data to research that can’t be verified.

Rita Nowak, vp of commercial lines and workers comp for the Property Casualty Insurers Assn. of America in Des Plaines, Ill., said she does not know of any industry statistics on workers comp claims stemming from drug or alcohol use. She also said she does not believe state regulatory agencies request that insurers or employers report such information.

Claiming that 38% to 50% of comp claims stem from alcohol or drugs does not make sense and is insulting to workers, Ms. Nowak said.

“I don’t think that is even within the realm of realistic data points,” Ms. Nowak said. “It basically implies that half the U.S. workforce is predominantly high at work.”

Yet the National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance, a division of Drug Free America Foundation Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla., cites the 38% to 50% statistic on its website. In one location, the NDWA attributes that finding to NCCI Holdings Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla.-based workers comp research and rating organization.

But a spokesman for NCCI said the organization examined more than 20 years of its research and found no such statistics. NCCI now plans to ask organizations to remove such attributions to its research, the spokesman said.

In another place on its website, NDWA attributes the 38% to 50% statistic to a 1992 “Working Partners, National Conference Proceedings Report,” sponsored by several federal agencies including the U.S. Labor Department. But an online copy of the proceedings report shows that while conference speakers addressed drug and alcohol issues and solutions for small businesses, it does not show that any speaker raised the 38% to 50% statistic.

In addition, neither the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor its Bureau of Labor Statistics track such data, representatives for both agencies said.

The NDWA could not be reached for comment.

The statistic pops up again on the website of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which says that “38% to 50% of all workers compensation claims are related to substance abuse in the workplace.”

“That seems kind of high to me,” a spokesman for the Tennessee agency said when asked about the numbers. But he cited the source of the information as the “Working Partners, National Conference Proceedings Report.”

Likewise, attorney Bill Judge states on the Work Comp Roundup blog that NCCI estimates that 38% to 50% of workers comp claims involve a drug or alcohol issue, which the NCCI denied was the case.

But Mr. Judge said the real percentage may be even greater. Mr. Judge is a research attorney for Park-Dickens Group L.L.C. in Chicago, which helps employers comply with regulations for drug testing so they can argue an intoxication defense against workers comp claims.

“I can understand where people might say, “Wait a second,’ but a lot of the insurance companies that we talk to on a regular basis believe that (38% to 50%) number is probably low,” Mr. Judge said.

However, several of the nation’s largest workers comp insurers say they do not collect such data, in part because it’s up to employers to report to them whether a claimant was under the influence at the time of an accident and not all employers test for intoxication.

But a spokeswoman for the California State Compensation Insurance Fund estimated that just less than 1% of its claimants are intoxicated at the time of their injury.

Numerous studies have linked the potential for intoxication impairment to contribute to occupational injuries, said Eric Goplerud, senior vp of the NORC Department of Substance Abuse, Mental Health and Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Chicago.

But Mr. Goplerud said he is not familiar with any study substantiating that 50% of workers comp claims are related to drugs or alcohol.

Any such statistics would be “very shaky and not defensible from data,” in part because of state laws exempting workers comp benefits for persons injured while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he said.

The laws undoubtedly suppress accurate reporting as some doctors treating injured workers are not likely to ask about alcohol or drugs out of concern the workers comp system won’t pay for their patients’ injury expenses, he added.

Some observers say inflating the influence of intoxicants is dangerous because it can lead to blaming workers for accidents rather than implementing procedures that address real safety problems.

“If you hang on to that (38% to 50%) number, you are basically going to start blaming the people for getting hurt as opposed to saying maybe there is a systemic (safety) problem we need to fix,” said Thomas Cecich, a member of the board of directors for the Des Plaines, Ill.-based American Society of Safety Engineers.

Many states that allow denial of workers comp benefits when drugs or alcohol cause an accident require the intoxicants to be the sole cause of the accident, Ms. Nowak said. But it is probably frequent that other factors contribute to accidents, such as failing to use proper safety guards on machinery.

Therefore, it is difficult to pin down how often intoxication contributes to injuries, Ms. Nowak said. But compared with 20 years ago, there are more drug- and alcohol-free workplaces because of education programs sponsored by insurers and state and federal agencies, Ms. Nowak added.

A 2009 Rand Corp. Center for Health and Safety in the Workplace study titled “The Effects of Substance Use on Workplace Injuries” reviewed existing literature examining the topic.

The Rand researchers found that the association between substance use and occupational injuries is greater in certain industries such as manufacturing and construction. But overall, the Rand researchers concluded that the proportion of occupational injuries caused by substance use is “relatively small.”

“Instead, there is mounting evidence that harmful substance use is one of a constellation of behaviors exhibited by certain individuals who may avoid work-related safety precautions and take greater work-related risks,” Rand’s report states. “Thus, we suspect that it is more likely that risk-taking dispositions…and other omitted factors can explain most empirical associations between substance use and injuries at work.”

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