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UI study indicates disabled employees have higher risk for injuries

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Employees with certain disabilities are more likely to be injured on the job than workers without disabilities. As a result, further research in the design and evaluation of workplace accommodations for these employees may be needed, according to a study by researchers at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

In a report published in the Dec. 24/31 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Dr. Craig Zwerling, UI associate professor of preventive medicine and environmental health, and his colleagues studied workers interviewed from 1985-1994 for the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). The NHIS is an ongoing survey conducted each year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The UI researchers studied 459,827 NHIS participants, ages 18-64, who listed "working" as their primary activity and whose occupations were other than farming. After adjusting for occupation, self-employment and age, they found that employees with disabilities had a 36 percent greater risk for workplace injury.

"Specifically, we looked at workers who reported that they had some sort of disability at the beginning of last year and compared them to workers who reported having no disabilities," says Zwerling, who directs the UI Injury Prevention Research Center. "Then we looked at what happened -- whether they had injuries or not."

For workers with disabilities as a whole, after controlling for the main factors that explain occupational injuries, the 36 percent increased risk is rather modest, Zwerling notes. However, for blind or deaf employees the risk is substantially greater. When compared to workers without disabilities, the researchers found blindness more than tripled, and deafness more than doubled, the risk for injury.

Hearing impairments increased the risk for injury among disabled workers by 55 percent. Pre-existing back impairment did not appear to be a major risk for injury, with only a 10 percent increase. The only medical condition that showed to be an increased risk for injury among employees with disabilities is arthritis, at 34 percent, UI researchers reported.

Zwerling notes that the number of U.S. workers with disabilities will likely go up in the next several years, partly because of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1991, and also because of the aging baby boom generation. The ADA requires employers with more than 15 employees to make any reasonable accommodations to allow qualified workers with disabilities to participate in the workforce.

"In the 1980s, about 10 percent of the population between 18 and 64 years old had some work limitation. We can expect more people with disabilities to become part of the workforce over the next couple of decades," Zwerling says. "These people will be at an increased risk for injury unless we pay attention to making accommodations so they can do their jobs safely."

Although scarce information is available on the types of workplace accommodations that have been made since the passage of the ADA, most are relatively inexpensive, Zwerling says.

"There was some concern when the law was passed that it would be costly to make accommodations for workers with disabilities, but the limited data available so far suggests this isn't the case," he says. "A couple of hundred dollars is not a lot for an employer who is going to have someone work for them for a number of years. The key for employers is to work individually with each employee with a disability, assess the employee's worksite and job requirements, and develop ways to eliminate or minimize risks to the employee and others."

12/23/97