Worker deaths decreased by 10.7 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, with 4,764 fatal workplace injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its annual report on workplace fatalities for 2020. This represents the lowest annual number of workplace injury deaths since 2013.

While the report does not include COVID-19 illness deaths, the decrease in hours worked due to the economic disruption triggered by the pandemic likely played a substantial role in the decline.

Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses also dropped in 2020, but more severe cases—those involving days away from work—increased. They included a major rise in respiratory illness cases, across age groups.

Transportation incidents remained the most frequent type of fatal event with 1,778 fatal injuries, accounting for 37.3 percent of all work-related fatalities.

The fatality rate dropped from 3.5 to 3.4 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. The decrease in the rate indicates an overall decreased risk of injury death on the job. Although the overall fatality rate decreased, the fatality rate among Hispanic or Latino workers increased, from 4.2 to 4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers

Other takeaways from the BLS report:

  • Hours worked decreased 9 percent in 2020, from 296.6 billion hours to 269.9 billion.
  • Unintentional overdose from non-medical use of drugs increased 24 percent and accounted for 388 deaths compared to 313 in 2019.
  • Suicides decreased 15.6 percent, from 307 in 2019 to 259 in 2020, representing the lowest count for occupational suicides since 2015.

Nonfatal Injuries

BLS also said private industry employers reported 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020, down from 2.8 million in 2019 (a decrease of 5.7 percent). Total cases decreased, but more severe cases (those involving days away from work) increased.

About 32 percent of the cases involving days away from work were categorized as other diseases due to viruses not elsewhere classified, which includes reported COVID-19-related cases. The total reported illness cases more than quadrupled, driven by a 4,000 percent increase in employer-reported respiratory illness cases in 2020, at 428,700, up from 10,800 in 2019.

Additionally, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, injury and illness trends involving days away from work by age group clearly showed a consistent increase in the number of injuries and illnesses impacting workers 55 and older. However, in 2020, all age groups experienced an increase in the number of cases involving days away from work. This increase was a result of 390,020 COVID-19 cases, representing 33 percent of all cases involving days away from work.

There was another notable shift in 2020: For the first time ever, women experienced slightly more injury and illness involving days away from work than men. Although not specifically coded by BLS, women (276,190) experienced the illness category that includes COVID-19 more than twice as frequently as did men (108,080).

Sources: National Safety Council and Bureau of Labor Statistics