The Top 5 Causes of Disabling Injuries in the Workplace

By Jamie Young
Last updated: January 14, 2024
Key Takeaways

Disabling injuries account for more than 70% of all injuries that occur on the job. And the cost – to both employers and their employees – are staggering.

Worker in an industrial setting holding her knee after it has been injured while another worker is on the phone, calling for medical assistance.
Source: Pressmaster / Envato Elements

According to statistical data gathered by Liberty Mutual, the top five causes of disabling inju­ries in the workplace (in 2010) are overexertion, falling on the same level, bodily reaction, falling to lower levels, and being struck by an object.


These five alone accounted for 73% of the total cost of injuries that year, an estimated $37.2 billion.

Of course, these injuries aren’t just expensive for employers – they’re a heavy burden for workers, too. They can compromise their financial security, quality of life, and overall wellbeing.


So, let’s look at the types of injuries that are responsible for the vast majority of disabling workplace incidents. We’ll go over what causes them and what workers and employers alike can do to reduce the risks. That way, we can all take steps to prevent disabling injuries in our workplaces. .


Overexertion ranked first and accounted for 26.8% of the total disabling injuries in 2010, with $13.61 billion dollars being allocated to workers’ compensation.

Overexertion often affects the lower back. Lower back injuries can result from activities like lifting and carrying heavy objects or working with the body in an awkward position.

Most overexertion injuries occur in the manufacturing and construction industries, but they can happen to any worker at any time.

How to Prevent Overexertion


Tips for Employers:

  • Provide back braces and other safety equipment to workers who lift or carry heavy items
  • Design ergonomic workspaces to help minimize the occurrence of work injuries
  • Allow and encourage employees to take frequent stretching breaks
  • Provide training on proper lifting techniques and other good work practices

Tips for Employees:

  • Ask your employer to provide braces or safety equipment
  • Reduce the amount of weight carried to minimize back strain – making additional trips is better than carrying too much
  • Maintain a good posture
  • Take frequent breaks to keep repetitive motion to a minimum
  • Notify your supervisor if you experience pain or other early symptoms of overexertion – don’t power through it

(Learn about the 5 Keys Ways to End Up With a Muskuloskeletal Disorder)

Falls on the Same Level

Falls on the same level ranked as the second most common cause of disabling injuries and accounted for 16.9% of all such injuries in 2010. That adds up to $8.61 billion being allocated to workers’ compensation.

Falls on the same level are a result of slips and trips. Common causes of slips are wet or oily walking surfaces, loose floor mats, and smooth flooring surfaces. Common causes of tripping are obstructed view, poor lighting, cluttered walkways, exposed cables, and uneven walking surfaces.

How to Prevent Falls on the Same Level

Tips for Employers:

  • Implement housekeeping procedures for all employees
  • Change or modify walking surfaces
  • Secure any loose floor mats
  • Provide employees with proper footwear
  • Ensure that the workplace is well lit

Tips for Employees:

  • Wear proper footwear
  • Clean all spills immediately
  • Keep all walkways clear of obstructions
  • Notify your supervisor if any work areas are poorly lit or if lightbulbs need replacing

(Learn more in Jobsite Housekeeping 101)

Bodily Reaction

Bodily reaction ranked third and accounted for 11.4% of the total disabling injuries in 2010, costing employers $5.78 billion in workers’ compensation.

Bodily reactions are injuries that result from free bodily motion. These include bending, climbing, reaching, standing, sitting, and slipping or tripping without falling.

How to Prevent Bodily Reaction

Tips for Employers:

  • Redesign the workspace or manual tasks to minimize the need for uncomfortable or awkward bodily movement
  • Train workers on safe working practices
  • Make the workplace as comfortable as possible by providing stools for employees who are required to stand for prolonged periods, or adjusting their tasks accordingly

Tips for Employees:

  • Take your time and pay attention to what you are going
  • Be mindful of your posture
  • Listen to your body and change positions frequently

Falls to a Lower Level

Falls to lower a level ranked fourth and accounted for 10% of the total disabling injuries in 2010, with $5.12 billion being allocated to workers’ compensation.

Falls to a lower level are caused by unprotected edges, floor holes, wall openings, and unsafely positioned ladders.

According to the National Institute for Safety and Health, falls to a lower level occurred more frequently in healthcare, building cleaning and maintenance, transportation and material moving, and construction and extraction.

How to Prevent Falls to Lower Levels

Tips for Employers:

  • Provide employees with fall protection equipment suitable to the working conditions
  • Install guardrails, safety nets, and other fall protection features near leading edges
  • Regularly inspect all ladders used to ensure that they are in good condition
  • Verify the integrity of scaffolding before allowing workers to walk on it

Tips for Employees:

  • Inspect fall protection equipment before every use
  • Don your fall protection equipment appropriately, verifying that it fits well and is secure
  • Use ladders that are appropriate to the task and ensure that it is properly secured
  • Do not work near leading edges that have not been properly protected

(Learn more in Roof Safety: An Elevated Hazard)

Being Struck by an Object

Being struck by an object ranked fifth among causes of disabling injury, and accounting for 8% of all disabling injuries in 2010 and costing employers $4.10 billion in workers’ compensation.

Struck-by hazards are common in the construction industry, but can happen in any work environment. Struck-by hazards include anything that can fall and strike a worker from above. Working or walking below elevated surfaces greatly increases an individual’s risk of being struck by an object.

How to Prevent Being Struck by an Object

Tips for Employers:

  • Implement a warning system before anything is dropped to a lower level
  • Establish a maintenance program to ensure that no part of your facility is prone to breaking and falling
  • Conduct regular hazard assessments to identify any object that could fall
  • Provide employees with hard hats and other PPE
  • Use tool tethers to reduce the risk of accidentally dropping them

Tips for Employees:

  • Keep a safe distance from suspended loads
  • Store materials properly
  • Wear appropriate PPE at all times
  • Avoid working below elevated surfaces whenever possible

(Find out What the ANSI-ISEA 121-2018 Dropped Object Standard Means for Safety Managers)

Key Points to Remember About Disabling Injuries

  • Disabling injuries inflict considerable financial burden in the form of workers’ compensation and medical costs
  • Disabling injuries can be prevented, but only by taking proactive steps to do so
  • Every worker has the right to refuse unsafe work
  • Employers can prevent disabling injuries and, consequently, save lives by implementing these three simple steps: plan, provide and train

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Written by Jamie Young | COO

Jamie Young

I believe that everybody has the right to get home safely to their families. Anything I can do to help promote and achieve a safe working environment, I will do.

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