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2002 Releases

Boston Bike Messengers Experience Very High Injury Rate and Most Do Not Carry Health Insurance

For immediate release:  November 20, 2002

Boston, MA- In the first known study to examine on-the-job injuries among bicycle messengers in Boston, Jack Tigh Dennerlein, an assistant professor of ergonomics and safety in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that urban bike couriers suffer a very high rate of occupational injury and disability, that most injuries go unreported and that most couriers do not carry health insurance. The study appears in the December issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Bike couriers have become as a much a part of the urban landscape as sky-scrapers and traffic clogged streets. Boston messengers collectively make between 3,000 and 4,000 deliveries on a given day. It may seem obvious that messengers work in dangerous conditions, quickly maneuvering around cars and pedestrians during peak congestion times. But little is known about the occupational hazards or rate and severity of injuries among this group because many bike messengers are independent contractors rather than employees of a courier service. As a result, injuries sustained on the job go unreported and days lost to injury are days without pay.

To quantify the injuries, 113 bike couriers in Boston completed a two-page, self-administered injury survey in July 2001, that assessed total injuries and frequency, injury severity as well as individual characteristics, job characteristics and perceived risk. Only 32 percent of the participants reported having medical insurance. Some 12 percent reported they always wore a helmet, another 12 percent reported they sometimes wore a helmet.

The majority of injuries sustained were the result of a collision with a moving or stationary vehicle (hitting an open vehicle door), or collision avoidance with motor vehicles or pedestrians. Less than nine percent of all collisions involved a pedestrian. Some 90 percent of the couriers in the study reported being injured on the job and 70 percent reported missing at least one day of work due to an injury suffered while making deliveries. On average and within this cohort, an injury occurs every 19 work hours and an injury that requires lost work time every 42 work hours.

The most common type of injuries reported were cuts, scrapes, lacerations, bruises, contusions and road-rash (skin abrasion). Among the injuries that result in lost work days, the most frequently reported types were fractures, sprains-strains, and dislocations. Injuries resulting in the most missed and limited days of work were fractures (on average 1 month of work missed with another three weeks of limited duty), followed by dislocations (17 missed days, 5 limited), strains-sprains-tears (6 days missed, 8 limited) and concussions (5 missed days, 5 limited).

"The injury rate among bike couriers appears to be typical, if not higher, than those of professional football players who only work for part of the year," said Dennerlein. "The rate of injury also appears to be greater than most industries, including meat-packing, one of the most dangerous jobs. Because the majority of injuries come from collisions, injury prevention needs to go beyond helmet use and consider separating cars and bike messengers through awareness and traffic pattern programs."

The study was supported in part by a grant from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center Pilot Study Grant.

See also: Occupational Injuries Among Boston Bicycle Messengers

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu