New CDC Research Examines Link Between Paid Sick Leave and Healthier Workers

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Workers with access to paid sick leave are 28 percent less likely overall to suffer nonfatal work-related injuries than workers without access to paid sick leave, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study found that workers in high-risk occupations and industry sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and healthcare and social assistance, appeared to benefit most from access to paid sick leave. Workers in these sectors commonly experience muscle soreness, pain, sprains, strains and tears; fractures; cuts and lacerations; or more chronic injuries including herniated discs, cartilage damage and spinal cord injuries.

The study is the first U.S. research that examines the issue and attempts to quantify some of the benefits of paid sick leave.  Researchers analyzed data from 2005-2008 collected by the National Health Interview Survey, that gave them the ability to examine the potential safety benefits associated with paid sick leave.  The study considered 38,000 private sector workers only; most full-time public sector workers have access to paid sick leave.  The report by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

Healthcare practitioners and technicians without access to paid sick leave were 18 percent more likely to suffer a non-fatal work-related injury than those same workers with access to paid sick leave.  Also, a construction worker without access to paid sick leave was 21 percent more likely to suffer a non-fatal work related injury than a construction worker with access to paid sick leave. 

“This study highlights how our work lives and our personal health are intertwined,” says John Howard, MD, director of CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.  “This concept of total worker health, which involves creating an environment of well-being both at home and at work, is an important aspect of the American economy as we depend on able and productive workers.”

In addition to illness, the study cites previous research that identified factors that are potential contributors to nonfatal work-place injuries, including sleep deprivation, fatigue and consumption of medications that may cause drowsiness.

The study cautions that sick or stressed workers who continue to work may be at risk if they have problems with sleep, fatigue or are taking medications that cause drowsiness.  These factors may in turn impair their concentration or ability to make sound decisions and increase the likelihood of suffering an additional illness or sustaining a workplace injury. 

“Many workers may feel pressured to work while they are sick, out of fear of losing their income,” says Abay Asfaw, PhD, lead researcher. “If fewer people work while they are sick, this could lead to safer operations and fewer injuries in the work place.”

These findings add to previous research that found that access to paid sick leave is associated with shorter worker recovery times and reduced complications from minor health problems.  Access to paid sick leave may also help prevent the spread of contagious diseases in daycare facilities and schools and would enable private sector companies to comply with recommendations by health officials on ways to reduce the spread of infectious disease including pandemic influenza, according to the study.

Paid sick leave is one of the non-wage benefits optionally offered by U.S. employers.  The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires public agencies and private-sector establishments to provide up to 12 weeks of leave to eligible workers, although this leave can be paid or unpaid. Despite the demonstrated advantages of paid sick leave for workers and employers, only 40 million U.S. private sector workers had access to paid sick leave in 2010.

The researchers said that employers may benefit from improved productivity if access to paid sick leave helps reduce absenteeism, or unscheduled leave, or the problem of  sick workers continuing to work while not fully productive, also known as “presenteeism.”  This study, along with previous research, indicates that more integrated development of programs that both prevent occupational injury and illness and improve other aspects of worker health may provide the greatest benefit. 

The authors said additional research could assist in understanding the potential impact of access to paid sick leave for entire communities, especially in the case of contagious diseases, and might identify additional opportunities for prevention of disease.

 

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