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broken toe
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 2, 2021

At-home accidents decreased over lockdown. What gives?

broken toe
Image: Tina Tiller

Despite the entire country being practically housebound, far fewer of us got hurt at home over three weeks of lockdown than we normally would, according to ACC data. How did we manage it?

Over the course of the recent lockdown, I reckon I stubbed my toe more than I’d ever stubbed it before. 

It makes sense: I was at home constantly and not wearing shoes. I’d jump up from my desk to go to the bathroom or grab something from the fridge and bam, whack my foot against an item of furniture or some piece of detritus I’d left on the floor because, you know, it’s lockdown. Who cares about tidying.

A non-scientific survey of my workmates found I wasn’t alone. Which got me thinking: injuries at home must have soared over lockdown. If I was stubbing my toes repeatedly, surely others were falling off ladders or burning themselves on stoves or putting their backs out giving that online workout a go?

ACC thought so too. I requested the data for claims made for injuries in the home between August 18 and September 6, when the entire country was at alert level four or three, and for the same periods in 2019 and 2020.

“The people who look at data at ACC actually anticipated an increase in home-based injuries,” says James Whitaker, ACC’s preventable programme lead. “But when they looked at the figures, they were pretty surprised and obviously pleased to see a significant drop.”

There were 39,247 accidents at home that resulted in ACC claims over the period in question, compared to 54,133 in 2020 and 50,302 in 2019 – a drop of 14,866, or 27%, on last year. “That equates to 750 people per day who didn’t get injured at home,” says Whitaker. “That’s incredible, because home is the place where most injuries occur.”

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The data reveals that soft tissue injuries (“contusion, internal organ, strain”), which make up the majority of those claimed for, dropped by 35% from 33,973 in 2020 to 21,938 in 2021. Taking up a much smaller proportion, concussions and brain injuries were down by 42% (from 516 last year to 301 in 2021), and dental injuries also saw a sizable decline, down 34% from 881 to 582. The only type of injury that had more claims for the relevant period was “inhalation/ingestion specific occasion”, up a modest 7% from 126 to 135. 

Broken down by the activity taking place prior to the injury, the biggest drop was in accidents caused by lifting/lowering/loading/unloading, which more than halved from 6,107 in 2020 to 3,126 in 2021. Walking or running-preceded accidents dropped by nearly 30%, and injuries preceded by recreation/sporting activities, employment tasks, getting on/off or in/out of, ascending/descending or fighting all decreased by more than 30%. Even injuries preceded by eating or drinking, which many of us did more of in lockdown, were down by 24%. 

The only categories not to see such substantial drops were “using, operating (not a machine)”, which was down by 15%, and children playing, which decreased by just under 6%. 

That small drop isn’t hard to explain: children aren’t as likely as adults to modify their behaviour in response to what’s going on in the outside world. But it appears we did, as a whole, modify our behaviour over lockdown. This is something of particular interest to Whitaker, whose job is to figure out how to prevent New Zealanders getting injured year round. Ninety percent of injuries are preventable, he says, and the lockdown trend proves that stopping a whole lot more of them from happening is actually possible. “If we do have a ‘hmm’ and process things properly and take the safest options, those injuries might not happen when we are back out there,” he says.

Accidents outside of the home also plummeted over lockdown, says Whitaker – hardly a surprise. “There were far fewer sports injuries, fewer injuries within workplaces and on the road, so it was a dramatic reduction right across the board.” The out-of-home ones are easy to explain, as “people weren’t out there doing all the things they usually do, so those injuries weren’t occurring in those places”. 

As for the at-home injuries, he has a couple of theories. One is that people were “analysing risk more than they usually would because they didn’t want to create a negative impact on the health system”. It’s an interesting thought: that someone might make a conscious choice not to get up on that ladder or do that tricky new workout just in case something might go wrong. 

Auckland saw a much greater drop in at-home accidents than the rest of the country – 44% down on last year – which perhaps suggests the above mindset was more at play in our biggest city. It’s natural that residents of the epicentre of the outbreak would have been particularly keen to avoid hospitals, whether through a fear of coming into contact with Covid or to avoid putting a strain on the health system, or a combination of the two.

Whitaker agrees that a small number of people may have hurt themselves but delayed seeking treatment for that same reason, but “it doesn’t explain the huge reduction in claim numbers”, he says. Even injuries such as fractures saw a decrease – and you’re not going to hold off a few weeks on getting a broken leg looked at, he reasons. 

After lockdown ended last year, says Whitaker, there was “a bit of a spike” in accident claims, which could suggest people had put off seeking treatment for minor injuries. It could also indicate some “rushed back into activities that they would usually do and they might not have had that moment of contemplation, like, ‘how do I do this safely?’,” he adds.

While he hopes the lockdown trend will continue into summer, he’s a bit worried there might be another spike this year. “I’ve kind of got this fear that people might not take the time to analyse risk and might get over-excited and get back straight into those things they love doing, then get injured and then they can’t keep doing them all summer long, and that would be a real shame.

“We would love to see the injuries stay down. It would be amazing if New Zealanders could go back to all the things they love doing and stay injury free.”

The other theory for the drop in home-based accidents over lockdown was that we simply stopped doing stuff. “Perhaps people took it quite easy for a period and didn’t get involved in a lot of the activities that could lead to injuries,” Whitaker surmises. “In lockdown people can get anxious and the whole world seems weird, so instead of getting stuck into productive activities, they might have focused on things that brought joy and pleasure and brought them closer to their family. They might have put some of those other things aside, perhaps.”

It’s a familiar scenario for many of us: starting lockdown with grand plans to get on top of that DIY project, learn to make sourdough or shred for summer, but ending up spending much of the time in trackpants on the couch. And now we know it was all for good reason.

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