By Randy Dotinga
WEDNESDAY, Feb. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers in Florida may have uncovered a rare positive outcome from the downturn in the local economy: fewer injuries to workers.
The new study finds that traumatic orthopedic injuries dropped by 16 percent in the city of Tampa as the economy soured -- a possible sign that fewer construction workers were getting injured on the job as that industry bottomed out.
The findings can't confirm a connection between the injury rate and the economy, nor do they prove that construction workers account for the difference over time. Still, the research is food for thought and may confirm the trend that surgeons noticed over the past few years, said study author Dr. Daniel S. Chan, staff orthopedic surgeon at Florida Orthopedic Institute in Tampa.
"We observed declines in our numbers, and we thought it was the economy," he said.
The researchers examined the number of trauma cases treated at the Florida Orthopedic Institute from 2001-2009. They then checked to see if they corresponded with factors reflecting the rise and fall of the economy over that period.
The Tampa area was a hot spot during the last big U.S. housing boom, and the researchers especially wanted to find out if the decrease in cases they observed coincided with the subsequent meltdown of the home construction industry.
Falls are an especially common injury for construction workers, Chan noted. Among other things, falls on construction sites can fracture ankles, shinbones and heel bones, he said.
The researchers found that cases of "orthopedic trauma" from the county did undergo a decline: from 2,065 in 2007 to 1,743 in 2009, a drop of 16 percent. And at the same time, the unemployment rate in the county rose steeply, from 4 percent to 10.7 percent over that same period.
Construction worker employment, especially, fell steeply -- by 36 percent from 2006-2009, the study found, while the number of county building permits issued dipped by 80 percent from 2005 to 2009.
Overall, the researchers found that the number of trauma cases were statistically connected to the unemployment rate of the previous year. That's possibly because it took a while for construction projects already in progress to come to an end, Chan said.
The findings could reflect a seemingly paradoxical fact about hard economic times, Chan said: In some cases, the health of people actually improves because they take less risks (including on-the-job risks) and take better care of themselves.
Still, Dr. Wilford K. Gibson, an orthopedic surgeon with Atlantic Orthopaedic Specialists in Virginia Beach, Va., said he's hesitant "to draw a correlation to decreased employment and cast stones at the construction industry."
Whatever its cause, is the decline in trauma cases bad for business in the world of orthopedic surgery? "Fortunately, I'm in an area that will always have some need," Chan said. "It's hard to imagine that people will be accident-free."
Still, he said, "let's hope the economy turns around."
The study was scheduled to be released this week at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' annual meeting in San Francisco. Findings presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
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