Workplace injuries loom behind recent rise in union activity

By: - October 18, 2022 6:00 am

Anthony Deutsch, senior mental health coordinator at Allina’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital, pickets in front of the hospital during a three-day strike on Oct. 3, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

From strikes to union drives, the state of Minnesota has seen a flurry of labor activity in 2022. Those actions mirror what’s happening nationwide – workers, particularly those with demanding service industry jobs, are seeking better pay and conditions after years of pandemic-era turmoil.

Low pay and outrageous policies, like Amtrak workers’ inability to take sick leave, tend to dominate these discussions. But one often-overlooked factor is job safety. It’s no coincidence that here in Minnesota at least, much of the workforce revolt is concentrated within some of the most dangerous industries for workers. And those risks got even worse during the pandemic.

Minnesota’s workplace illness and injury rate has traditionally run higher than the U.S. average. But that gap widened even further in 2020, the last year for which the Department of Labor and Industry has complete data. That year there were 3.5 OSHA-recordable workplace illnesses and injuries for every 100 full-time private sector workers in the state, roughly 30% higher than the 2.7 per 100 nationwide. 

The data further show that the highest rates of injury and illness were found in private industry nursing and residential care facilities, where the rate of 13.7 illnesses and injuries per 100 workers was close to four times the statewide average. Justice and public safety professions were next on the list, followed by local government nursing facilities, private hospitals and state government nursing facilities.

Four out of the five most dangerous professions in Minnesota, in other words, involve nursing and residential care. Those numbers partly explain why health care workers have been at the forefront of much of the state’s union activity.

The COVID-19 pandemic was behind the lion’s share of those figures. The pandemic accounted for 41% of all injuries and illnesses, with much of those within the health care sector. The rate of injury and illness among health care workers effectively doubled between 2019 and 2020.

These figures only capture acute injuries and illnesses tied to jobs. As such, office-based positions — like jobs in the financial and business sectors — tend to show low rates of workplace mishaps. But those positions tend to be burdened by a different type of risk: Remaining sedentary for long periods of time. Research has shown that habitual inactivity makes people more prone to diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer

In recent years there’s been some debate in the media over whether jobs that require perpetual sitting or standing are more damaging to a person’s health. But it’s not difficult to reconcile the conflicting studies: ergonomics experts have found that, in general, humans shouldn’t be spending too much time exclusively on or off their feet: the body needs both, ideally interspersed throughout the day.

But in their quest to maximize shareholder profits, businesses have become ruthless about squeezing every last drop of productivity out of their workers, whether by sitting them down in front of a computer, standing them in front of machines, or making them serve ever greater numbers of customers throughout the day. 

All of those situations take a toll on workers, so it’s not a surprise that so many have turned to strikes and union drives in the past year: Their bodies are literally at a breaking point.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.