Pro Footballers Pay with Pain, OSHA Pays Pain Little Mind.

February 14, 2006

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Is "NFL football player" an unsafe occupation? As we consider this a blog for professionals, we hesitate to use the phrase, "Duh." But where does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stand on the topic?

As Super Bowl XL wrapped the year's NFL football season two weeks ago in Detroit, some of the league's players will still feel their injuries: knee injuries; sprained and broken ankles; abdominal tears; broken wrists; pulled and shredded hamstring and groin muscles; and a mix of head, spine and neck trauma.

A dangerous workplace can wreak havoc on employees, and despite the minimal number of apparent injuries during the Feb. 6 game*, it should appear obvious that professional football players of all positions on the field are not immune from the violence.

So where does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stand regarding the NFL?

"While OSHA is an enforcement agency, our 1,000 inspectors are the best-trained health and safety people out there," said Richard Fairfax, director of enforcement programs at OSHA, in an October '05 article at The Manufacturer.

In a manner of speaking, the administration does keep tabs on the league, as spectator sports do fall under the purview of OSHA, which has overseen private industry since 1971. However, as a recent Slate article noted, "OSHA's enforcement arm has had almost nothing to do with professional football," because "the injury rates for professional sports are not that high."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, based on its latest data, reported that the rate of injury or illness in spectator sports in 2004 was 2.8 per 100 fulltime workers; i.e., for every 100 people working 2,000 hours a year, there were 2.8 cases that resulted in someone missing workdays. Hog and pig farmers, for comparison, suffered at a rate of 4.4, Slate noted.

Consider, though, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the 2003 NFL injury rate was nearly eight times higher than that of any other commercial sports league — and this includes the National Hockey League (NHL) and professional auto racing. Perhaps most telling is an investigative report conducted by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review early last year, in which the publication asserted an NFL injury rate of 68 percent.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, in order to "understand how football affects the bodies and minds of those who play it," analyzed four years' of NFL injury data, interviewed more than 200 current and former players, coaches and managers, and delved into thousands of pages of the latest medical research. In doing so, the publication found that, "in the 2000 through the 2003 seasons, NFL players racked up 6,558 injuries"; and upon compilation of the NFL's weekly injury reports, found that more than half the athletes are hurt annually, with the number spiking at 68 percent in 2003-04.

Reported the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

The big hits add up to 27 categories of reported injuries that players have suffered over the past four years, from abdominal tears to broken wrists, according to the weekly NFL injury reports. Tops of the pops: knee injuries, which range from broken knee bones to severe rips in the ligaments. Over the past four years, 1,205 players […] have suffered knee injuries. Knee trauma accounts for nearly one out of six injuries in the NFL, affecting every position nearly equally.

Other popular NFL injuries include ankle breaks and sprains, of which there have been 928 over the past four years alone; 683 pulled and shredded hamstring and groin muscles; and a mix of head, spine and neck trauma affecting 652 players, according to the NFL's injury reports. Trauma of the joint and bone, as it adds up over the years, often cripples players later in life. Knee and joint injuries have been dropping over the last 30 years, according to the NFL and the report. However, in their place have arisen other injuries, from very serious brain and nervous-system injuries to broken arms, hands and fingers.

Even simply scan over the league's weekly injury reports to find a seemingly significant discrepancy between the purported 2.8 percent and a more realistic amount of "hurt." Since the 2000 season, according to NFL injury reports, the total number of weeks pros have spent on the injury rolls has gone up from 3,618 to 3,845.

One reason for this numbers-disconnect lies in that the government statistics lump together all sports, from those most violent to those the least. "They may also include everyone involved in the industry, like coaches, trainers and members of farm teams and practice squads," Slate said. A second reason is that it remains unclear if OSHA pays attention to every athlete on the field; some athletes may be considered "contractors," as opposed to "employees," in which case their injuries are not reported to the government.

The government really is most likely to look into professional sports upon the occasion of death, Slate said:

The Minnesota branch of OSHA took notice a few years ago when Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died of heat stroke following practice. An investigation of the practice conditions concluded that the Vikings were not to blame. They had given their personnel proper training on heat stress, as well as ample water and a first-aid truck.

Even in the stands, fatalities are not completely unheard of. OSHA took notice and stepped in when a girder collapsed at the Georgia Dome in 1994, killing a food vendor, as well as when a worker at the St. Louis Rams' stadium fell to his death in 2003.

And the risk to fans? According to OSHA officials, the government has been asked to investigate sound levels in football stadiums. In '99, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported 128.4 decibels of fan noise in the Metrodome for a playoff game against the Cardinals. OSHA requires employers to protect their workers from an average of more than 90 decibels over an eight-hour stretch.

Team employees were not deemed at risk, as a football game lasts only about three hours.

* Although, cringe-worthy note is due to Antwaan Randle El during this month's Super Bowl for when he fielded that punt for Pittsburgh and then took that nasty hit in his back AFTER he flipped head-over-heels and was thus still vertically upside-down in the air when pounded**.

** I am perhaps-pompously pleased to report that the injury rate for Internet publishing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is an agreeable-to-this-blogger .5.


Does OSHA Keep Tabs on the NFL? by Daniel Engber Slate, Feb. 3, 2006

Bloody Sundays by Carl Prine The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Jan. 9, 2005

The art of OSHA by Matt Bolch The Manufacturer, Oct. 12, 2005

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