Work-Related: A Coal Miner’s Story

Workplace injuries are common and lead to chronic health problems, death, and significant financial and social costs. For every 100 full-time positions, employees suffered 3.6 cases of nonfatal, recordable injuries or illnesses in 2009 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).  However, by most estimates, this is likely only a fraction of the true rate of injuries because many incidents go unreported.

Factors related to the work environment, as well as the larger economic and social contexts of the injured worker, affect the likelihood that an injury will be recorded. Some barriers to reporting include fear of job loss, stigmatization, lack of knowledge about worker’s compensation, language and cultural barriers, and employer in-house first aid (Azaroff, 2002).

My documentary project emphasizes the vulnerability of injured workers, especially those who perform high-risk manual work and also face economic challenges. Workers who report injuries to supervisors may risk disciplinary action, stigmatization, and possible harassment. Worker’s Compensation offers only partial wage replacement, and often becomes available only after a minimum number of lost workdays. In our culture, worker injury claims are often met with skepticism or suspicion of fraud. This leads to stereotyping and bias directed at workers in medical interactions.

As a senior resident in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, I frequently provide care for injured workers. This project explores one coal miner’s experience following a work-related injury. It highlights the importance of understanding the worker’s experience—both in terms of workplace safety and socioeconomic position in the community.

This is also my father’s story. His open and personal account of the medical care he received following his injury is one of the most important lessons I’ll carry with me following my Occupational Medicine Training. My father’s story has also highlighted the difference between policies that promote reductions in injury rates and those that promote reductions in injury reporting. This understanding will affect my research career, helping me to focus on patient-centered outcomes.

– Dr. Cynthia Feltner

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