Does OSHA keep tabs on the NFL?

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Feb. 3 2006 6:31 PM

Does OSHA Keep Tabs on the NFL?

The football field seems like an unsafe work environment.

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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Click image to expand.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck 

Steelers defensive standout Troy Polamalu tweaked his ankle during practice on Thursday and is now listed as "probable" to play in Sunday's Super Bowl. Pittsburgh's James Harrison also has an ankle problem, and Travis Kirschke is questionable on account of his injured groin. Football players seem to get hurt in their workplace all the time. So, does OSHA keep tabs on the NFL?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Yes, in a manner of speaking. Spectator sports do fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has overseen private industry since 1971. But OSHA's enforcement arm has had almost nothing to do with professional football. That's because the injury rates for professional sports aren't that high, according to government officials.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of injury or illness in spectator sports in 2004 was 2.8 per 100 full-time workers. That means that for every 100 people working 2,000 hours a year (50 full-time weeks), there were 2.8 cases that resulted in someone missing days of work. For comparison, hog and pig farmers suffered at a rate of 4.4, and coal miners were at 5.4. (The Explainer is happy to report that the rate for Internet publishing is a cushy 0.5.)

Are professional sports really that safe? A 1990 study commissioned by the NFL Players Association found that two-thirds of the league's retirees suffered from a permanent sports-related injury. An investigative report conducted last year by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review asserts an NFL injury rate of 68 percent. And a cursory review of the league's weekly injury reports suggests that far more than 2.8 percent of players miss time in a given season.

There are a couple of reasons for the discrepancy. First, the government statistics lump together all sports, from the most violent to the least. They may also include everyone involved in the industry, like coaches, trainers, and members of farm teams and practice squads. Second, it's not clear if OSHA pays attention to every athlete on the field. Some may be considered "contractors," as opposed to "employees," in which case their injuries are not reported to the government. (The administration says the status of each athlete can be determined on a case-by-case basis.)

The government is most likely to look into professional sports when someone dies. 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. OSHA also stepped in when a girder collapsed at the Georgia Dome and killed a food vendor in 1994, and when a worker at the St. Louis Rams' stadium fell to his death in 2003.

OSHA officials say the government has been asked to investigate sound levels in football stadiums. In 1999, 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 noise of more than 90 decibels over an eight-hour stretch. Since a football game lasts only about three hours, the team employees aren't deemed to be at risk.

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Explainer thanks Mark Conrad of Fordham University, and reader Jim Stevens for asking the question.

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