First Glance at
The statewide claims rate declined to 1.4 claims per 100 workers, the lowest claims rate ever recorded in Oregon (see table above). The fatalities rate dropped to 2.6 claims per 100,000 workers, a decrease from the 2002 rate of 3.3 fatal claims per 100,000 workers.
The number of accepted disabling claims dropped 7.0 percent from the 2002 figure, and the number of workers covered by workers' compensation decreased by 0.9 percent (see Figure 1). This has been the pattern for the last few years, the number of accepted disabling claims declining at a faster pace than the diminishing pool of workers. Between 1999 and 2003, the number of workers covered by Oregon's workers' compensation law dropped 1.2 percent, while the number of accepted disabling claims declined 15.4 percent.
The trend of steadily declining numbers of claims and claims rates began in the late eighties (see Figure 2), following record high premium rates, claims costs, and numbers of claims. In 1986, Oregon employers paid the sixth highest average workers' compensation premium rates in the country. At the same time, medical and permanent disability costs for injured Oregonians were among the highest in the nation, while benefits were considered among the lowest. These factors led to many reforms to Oregon's workers' compensation system.
The 1987 legislature took the first major step by enacting HB 2900. This bill expanded OR-OSHA's consultative program, requiring insurers and self-insured employers to provide safety and health loss prevention programs, and increasing penalties against employers who violate the Oregon Safe Employment Act. Three years later, SB 1197 and SB1198 were passed. SB1197 extended HB 2900 by requiring many employers to establish safety and health committees.
With SB 1197, the legislature also changed the definitions of compensability for both injuries and diseases. Reforms required that a compensable injury or disease be established by medical evidence and supported by objective findings. In addition, the compensable injury, not a pre-existing condition, must be the major contributing cause for the worker's condition. For an occupational disease claim to be compensable, the condition must be caused by substances or activities to which an employee is not ordinarily subjected. Injuries from recreational and social activities are excluded. Injuries arising from the use of alcohol or drugs are excluded when proven by clear and convincing evidence that the alcohol or drug is the major contributing cause of the injury. (In 1995, the legislature reduced the standard of proof to the "preponderance of evidence.") More refinements to the reforms were enacted during subsequent legislative sessions.
In 2001, the Legislature enacted several workers' compensation bills that impacted various facets of Oregon's workers' compensation system. The most complex and comprehensive was Senate Bill 485, which was created to correct unanticipated imbalances and consequences of previous legislation. One of the bill's key changes was to the definition of preexisting conditions. The definition was narrowed, and with the exception of arthritis, untreated and undiagnosed preexisting conditions are no longer grounds for denying compensability. Additionally, the burden of proving the existence of a preexisting condition is now placed upon the employer rather than the claimant.
For a more comprehensive and chronological history of legislative reforms, see Appendix 1 of the report Monitoring the Key Components of Legislative Reform.
In addition to the effects of workers' compensation reforms, changes in claims handling procedures and claims management by insurers and employers have been reported as contributing to the decline in accepted disabling claims. Another influence may be a shift in Oregon's economy over the past 15 years, with fewer workers in the hazardous wood products industry, and more workers in comparatively safer high-tech and service industries.
Finally, the increased emphasis on safety and health has played a vital role in the reduction of both the numbers and frequencies of work-related claims in Oregon. With employers, workers, and government working together, Oregon's work sites have become safer.
If you have questions about the information contained in this document, please contact by e-mail or phone: Juli Ross-Mota, Research Analyst, Research & Analysis Section, Information Management Division (503) 947-7359.
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This web page was last revised: 11/10/2004.