Industry is having a great year – according to statistics. It doesn’t matter whether you are making steel, rubber, paper, chemicals or motorcycles or if you are refining oil or building bridges – industry has had the safest decade ever – according to statistics. The overall injury rate has fallen 48% – according to statistics. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) you are twice as likely to be injured working in a food mart (average of 5.7 recordable injuries, 2008) as in a paper mill (average of 3.7) or chemical plant (average of 2.7) – according to statistics. Yep, pretty damn impressive – according to statistics.
Maybe a little too impressive, even for the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) which until recently has touted the improving numbers.
“The statistics we have on workplace injuries are incomplete and, in some cases, inaccurate,” says David Michaels, recently appointed Assistant Secretary of labor who heads OSHA.
The report found that employers consistently underreported injuries to reduce their insurance premiums and that workers underreported injuries because of job fear. As of 2008, the GAO concluded, “OSHA’s efforts to verify the accuracy of the data were not adequate.”
What did the GAO find? (Click here for the entire GAO summary)
OSHA overlooks information from workers.
OSHA annually audits the records of 250 out of 130,000 worksites in high hazard industries to verify accuracy. But it doesn’t regularly interview workers on those audits – missing the only source of data not provided by the employer.
OSHA is too late.
Inspectors report that they rarely learn about injuries and illnesses from workers since the records audits are conducted about 2 years after the incidents are recorded. Many workers are no longer even employed at the site.
OSHA’s list of high hazard industries is outdated.
Audits are not performed in at least eight recognized high hazard industries because their list has not been updated since 2002. According to OSHA, it would require a regulatory change that is not currently an agency priority.
OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements are poorly understood.
OSHA must increase education and training for employers.
Disincentives cited as prime factors affecting accuracy of reported data
Workers’ fear of job loss or discipline plays a large role in underreporting injuries on the job. This effect increases even more when mandatory drug testing following incidents is required often without any evidence or suspicion of drug use.
Incentive programs that reward workers when their work groups have few or no recordable injuries discourage reporting by peer pressure from the group who all lose their prize if an individual reports an injury.
Another disincentive to reporting is the possible raising of insurance premiums for employers if incidents are reported. Also, in some industries, the ability to win new contracts can be impacted by the injury rate. This can result in efforts to hide injuries or on pressure on healthcare givers to downplay the severity (recordable vs non-recordable) of an injury.
OSHA has agreed with all the findings of the GAO report and is working to implement their recommendations. In addition their National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Recordkeeping (Oct. 2009) will be expanded to take a close look at the effect of incentive programs on incident reporting.
Only when OSHA includes input from workers in their audit of recordkeeping compliance and forbids the kind of company incentive programs that drives down reporting will the worker injury statistics gathered by the BLS and other agencies really have any meaning. Maybe then the phrase, “according to statistics”, won’t mean “disregard anything you read”.