Increased Injury Risks for Employers Following the COVID-19 Pandemic

As of April, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor reported national unemployment at 6.1 percent, with 9.8 million people unemployed. While these statistics are nearly twice as high as those of the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers continue to struggle in recruiting and hiring enough workers to fill job openings, particularly in warehousing and distribution. Though the unemployment statistics may appear to offer employers an expanded pool of job candidates, many factors compound the complexity of the actual difficulty employers now face. These factors may include such issues as the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on industries such as hospitality, entertainment and restaurants and the reluctance of workers from those industries to move to other industry segments to work, the reluctance of some to return to any work due to continued concerns about COVID-19 risks and the unprecedented government stimulus distributions and expanded unemployment benefits that have allowed for less urgency among the unemployed to return to work or for many to even reconsider their career paths.

Due to this worker shortage and other contributing circumstances, the post-pandemic environment will likely contribute to an increasing risk of worker injuries for employers in many industries. The impact of the pandemic actually increased demands for many employers, particularly those in distribution. As lifestyle changes occurred due to business closures and quarantines, an even greater demand developed for online shopping and home delivery of consumer products and groceries. This increase in demand pushed productivity higher and required increasing overtime hours for workers in work environments that were already at all-time highs. In a retrospective meta-analysis of data from over 400 food warehouses, AEI found that the average work intensity of cases handled per hour had increased by 40% between 2007 and 2019. The current demand in distribution, combined with the worker shortage, has likely increased productivity levels even more, requiring workers to work at a faster pace for longer hours with less time for rest and recovery. The culmination of these factors could result in greatly increased risk of injury for existing workers.

At potentially even greater risk of injury are newly hired workers. Pre-pandemic data indicated there was already a very high risk of injury for new hires in jobs with high productivity and physical demand requirements. In the same study of work intensity referenced above, AEI also found in an analysis of aerobic capacity evaluations from over 400,000 job candidates from 1999 to 2019, an increase in average body weight and BMI of over 10% in both males and females and a decline in average aerobic capacity of 6% in males and 8% in females. Given the measured increase in work intensity, along with the decline in overall fitness, it was determined that fewer than 40% of job candidates for warehousing jobs have fitness levels necessary to safely perform the average job requirements.

When pandemic factors are considered on top of the pre-existing discrepancy between job candidate fitness levels and job physical demand requirements, the short and long term impact on work-related injuries and costs could be drastic. According to the National Safety Council, in 2018 the average total cost of each medically consulted workplace injury was $41,000. Any increase in such injuries could be devastating to the profitability of a business. Yet it is likely that the overall decrease in activity of the whole population caused by the pandemic has greatly increased this risk. Early data posted on the research publication platform Cambridge Open Engage suggests an overall reduction of 32% in physical activity since the onset of the pandemic, while other fitness data from Apple, Fitbit and Evidation research firm suggests reductions of up to 50%. These decreases in activity can result in quick declines in strength and fitness that can be long lasting and difficult to regain. In fact, a study from 2015 found that even six weeks of rehabilitation physical training did not fully restore leg strength loss that occurred from just two weeks of inactivity. In addition to the risks created by inactivity, we have yet to fully discover the long term impact on the physical ability of those who contracted and recovered from the COVID-19 virus.

In light of complex mix of components making up the current employment environment, employers in hiring mode should proceed with caution. As tempting and necessary as it may seem to proceed with reckless abandon to hire any candidate willing to apply, now more than ever employers should take extra steps to qualify and train new hires. Onboarding processes that include training periods for ramping up to full productivity and safety training can have great impact on injury prevention. Additionally, a pre-screening program like the AEI Physical Abilities Testing Program has shown to reduce injuries to new hires by an average of 47% in the first year. Employers who focus on proactive strategies like this now can have great impact on current and future profitability by not hiring inevitable injuries.