Management & Labor

The Most Dangerous Government Jobs and Why They're Riskier Than the Private Sector

Public-sector workers typically face a greater risk of suffering an injury on the job than other segments of the workforce. Read five key takeaways from new industry-level data.
by | November 19, 2013
Flickr/Joe Shlabotnik

Public transportation employees are far more likely to suffer an injury on the job than those working in most private transportation operations. Public hospital staff don’t have a hazard-free work environment, either. For police and fire personnel, the risk of getting hurt is even greater.

These and other occupations considered the most dangerous are often found in the public sector, where employees tend to suffer job-related injuries and illnesses at higher rates the private sector. In some areas, Labor Department workplace injury and illness data published earlier this month suggests governments may lag behind in keeping their employees safe.

Across all areas of local government, federal data estimates 6.1 nonfatal job-related injury or illness cases occurred for every 100 full-time employees in 2012. State governments recorded a rate of 4.4 per 100 workers. The situation is somewhat better in the private sector, where there were 3.4 cases for every 100 workers.

Injuries account for the vast majority of reported cases, ranging from slips to serious vehicle accidents.

Some of the most dangerous workplaces, including the prominent examples of police and fire departments, are unique to the public sector and come with inherent risks, helping to explain the sector's higher incidence rates. Even so, though, governments still typically record higher injury rates for workers within the same industry.

In all, states and localities reported an estimated 793,000 recordable incidents in 2012, approximately 337,000 of which resulted in missed work days, job restrictions or transfers. For private industry, the total tally was nearly 3 million.

Here’s a summary of five key takeaways from an analysis of the latest data:

1. Governments record higher incidence rates than private companies within the same industries

Governments have historically registered higher incidence rates than the private sector – not a surprising fact considering the nature of some public employee jobs.

Taking a closer look at the data, though, reveals public employees also are at a greater risk of suffering an injury or illness than private sector employees working in the same industries.

In six of the seven most narrowly-defined subsector industries with comparable data, local governments recorded higher rates than the private sector. For example, elementary and secondary education employees were injured or fell ill at a rate of 5.2 per 100 in the public sector, compared to 2.8 per 100 in private industry. Similarly, transit and ground passenger transportation employees registered a rate of 7.1 cases per 100 if they worked for localities, compared to 5.1 for private industry. Only hospitals recorded a slightly higher incidence rate in the private than public sector.

The same was true of state government employees. Of four industries selected with comparable data, state rates topped private companies in each instance. The greatest disparity was present in nursing and residential care facilities, with state government recording an incidence rate of 13.6 per 100 employees compared to 7.6 per 100 in the private sector.

The following chart shows incidence rates for each of the eight subsectors reviewed (for some, the Labor Department did not publish both state and local government data):

The main caveat is that although employees may work in the same industry, the workplaces themselves can differ greatly. In the case of nursing and residential care facilities, state governments operate psychiatric hospitals, which help explain the higher incidence rates of those workers.

Some industry categories encompass a broad range of fields, so only the most-narrowly defined subsector categories with published data are shown here to provide for more relevant comparisons.

Incidence rates refer to the total number of recordable nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time equivalent workers. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines request employers to record cases involving “lost work time, medical treatment other than first aid, restriction of work or motion, loss of consciousness or transfer to another job.”

2. Industries with the highest injury risk

State-operated nursing and residential care facilities registered the highest injury and illness rate (13.6 per 100 employees) of any industry with published data last year.

Hospital and nursing staff confront a variety of hazards on the job -- some of the more common incidents include slips, splashes from blood or bodily fluids and needle punctures.

Paul O'Neill, a member of the Lucian Leape Institute at the National Patient Safety Foundation, said that in many cases, staff put themselves at risk by not wearing available protective equipment.

Industry leaders, he said, are not making an adequate effort to address the issue. “It’s unbelievable that we tolerate these rates,” said O’Neill, who previously served as U.S. Treasury Secretary and CEO of Alcoa Inc.

If medical facilities are to push down their rates, O’Neill emphasized those at the top of organizations must adopt safety measures and ensure employees continue to instill them throughout the workplace.

“In a high functioning safe work environment, there are things that we know to do, and everyone does them because they’ve become owners of the idea that they shouldn’t put themselves at risk,” he said.

After nursing and residential care facilities, industries recording the highest rates of reported injuries and illnesses last year were police protection and mobile home manufacturing, each with 11.8 cases per 100 employees.

Other private industries with notably high rates include metal foundries and truss manufacturers.

The table below lists occupational injury and illness rates for all state and local government industries with published data. Rates for the more serious cases involving days away from work, job transfer or restriction, commonly referred to as the DART rate, are shown in the rightmost column:

(Please note that some subsectors are contained within other industries listed. "Justice, public order, and safety activities” also count as “public administration,” for example).

3. Some of the riskiest industries recorded recent declines

The good news is that for nearly all occupations -- public and private -- injury rates are not climbing.

In fact, a few of the more risky occupations reported statistically significant declines. While the local government utilities rate remains high, for example, it has steadily dropped from its rate of 8.4 cases in 2008 to 5.8 cases per 100 employees in 2012.

Fire protection is one area in particular that saw notably fewer injury cases last year, with its rate falling from 13.5 to 11.2 cases per 100 workers.

Improved fire codes, suppression systems and greater levels of public awareness are curtailing the number of fires nationally, which in turn reduce firefighter injuries, said Ken Willett, who manages the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) fire protection division. NFPA research also finds that cultural attitudes toward safety in fire departments are improving and they’re better equipping  firefighters, further limiting the risk of injury.

When called out to a scene, firefighters quickly transition from waiting in stations to carrying heavy equipment, often leading to sprains and strains. Cardiac-related health problems also frequently stem from the overexertion that comes with working in extremely hot environments, Willett said.

Willett sees two paths to further reducing injuries: either a technological breakthrough in safety equipment or departments improving their firefighting tactics.

“Until we see substantial movement in those areas, it’s my observation that we’ve plateaued for the time being,” he said.

Here's an illustration of a few local government occupations that saw incidence rates dip in recent years:

4. Rates have mostly leveled off nationally

Across the sector, local governments' overall injury and illness rates haven’t budged for three years, remaining at 6.1 cases per 100 workers. State government rates also haven’t fluctuated much.

In the private sector, not a single industry recorded an increase in the annual combined injury and illness rate last year. As a whole, the sector’s injury rate declined slightly over the year (from 3.3 to 3.2 cases per 100 workers), while the illness rate was statistically unchanged, the Labor Department reports.

5. Most common injuries

The nature and type of injuries employees incur vary greatly among different occupations.

For cases involving days away from work, local government employees missed a median of eight days of work in 2011.

Sprains, strains and tears are a few of the most common injuries, often caused by overexertion or falls.

The following table lists causes of injuries for all local government occupations, with rates per 10,000 employees shown for more serious cases requiring days away from work:

Event or exposure Rate per 10,000
Violence and other injuries by persons or animal 22.2
...Intentional injury by other person 9
...Injury by person unintentional or intent unknown 11.1
...Animal and insect related incidents 2.1
Transportation incidents 13.3
...Roadway incidents involving motorized land vehicles 10.6
Fires, explosions 0.5
Falls, slips, trips 53.8
...Slips, trips without fall 9.6
...Fall on same level 34.9
...Fall to lower level 7.6
Exposure to harmful substances or environments 6.2
Contact with object, equipment 30.8
...Struck by object 17.6
...Struck against object 8.1
...Caught in object, equipment, material 2.4
Overexertion and bodily reaction 62.3
...Overexertion in lifting or lowering 18.2
...Repetitive motion involving microtasks 4.7
All other 3.7

Source: BLS, 2011 data

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