OSHA Misses Injuries and Illnesses, GAO Says

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cannot adequately verify lost-time injury and illness cases reported by employers, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Although injury and illness rates for workers have been declining in recent years, critics say the improvement has more to do with OSHA data collection procedures than occupational safety and health policy.

OSHA audits the injury and illness records of about 250 out of approximately 130,000 worksites subject to detailed reporting requirements, according to GAO. The audits aim to determine whether internal company records match the reports submitted to OSHA.

However, whether the data is recorded accurately in the first place is a different story, and OSHA cannot often verify the details of injury reports. “OSHA’s efforts to verify the accuracy of the data are not adequate because OSHA overlooks some information it could obtain from workers about injuries and illnesses” during the audits, GAO said.

The Oct. 15 GAO report, which was not released until Nov. 16, is titled, Enhancing OSHA’s Records Audit Process Could Improve the Accuracy of Worker Injury and Illness Data. The report is available on GAO’s website at http://gao.gov/products/GAO-10-10.

Data verification is not required by law or by OSHA regulation, but OSHA does attempt to verify reports during records audits. However, “OSHA does not require inspectors to interview workers during records audits about injuries and illnesses that they or their co-workers may have experienced.” GAO said interviewing could provide OSHA with valuable information.

OSHA should attempt to verify injury and illness reports more promptly, GAO noted. Currently, OSHA waits about two calendar years to audit employer records. As a result, affected employees may have moved to different jobs or forgotten details of a specific incident.

GAO also faulted OSHA for failing to regularly update its list of high-hazard industries. Only designated high-hazard industries are subject to records audits and, subsequently, attempts at verifying injuries and illnesses. Eight additional industries should be included, the report says, including rental centers, amusement parks, and industrial launderers.

A relatively small number of U.S. worksites are subject to OSHA injury and illness recordkeeping requirements. Employers with 10 or fewer employees and those in “specific low hazard retail, service, finance, insurance or real estate” industries are not required to record or report an incident unless it “results in a fatality or the hospitalization of three or more employees,” according to OSHA regulations. The exemptions cover about 83 percent of all employers, according to GAO.

OSHA relies on accurate injury and illness data to make regulatory decisions intended to improve worker protections. Industries found to have above-average injury or illness rates may be subject to more frequent or more thorough inspection, and OSHA may target emerging hazards through new regulation.

A 2006 study conducted by two University of Illinois-Chicago researchers, Lee Friedman and Linda Forst, blamed changes OSHA made in 1995 and 2002 that redefined injuries and illnesses. The changes allowed employers to interpret incidences more narrowly. The researchers found that 83 percent of the decline in injury and illness rates can be attributed to the definitional changes.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, another Department of Labor agency, there were 3.7 million injury or illness cases in 2008, a rate of 3.9 cases per 100 workers. That number is down significantly from 1998, when the rate was 6.7 cases per 100 workers. However, BLS uses OSHA definitions and relies on OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements to obtain its data. In 2008, 5,071 workers died as a result of injuries and illnesses suffered in the workplace – more than 13 fatalities per day.

GAO is not the first to criticize OSHA for mishandling injury and illness statistics. In June 2008, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing to investigate problems with OSHA’s statistical policies and practices.

In his opening statement, committee Chair George Miller (D-CA) noted “mounting evidence that a number of employers are engaging in intimidation in order to keep workers from reporting their own injuries and illnesses.” Miller faulted OSHA for relying on a system of employer self-reporting.

Both employees and employers face disincentives to fully report injuries. Since some worksites provide employee bonuses based on safety records, workers may prefer to underreport injuries, or not report them at all, according to the GAO report. Employees also face pressure from employers hoping to avoid worker compensation liability. Pressure can take the form of threatened job loss, job transfer, or reprimand.

Occupational health specialists and other health practitioners frequently witness these pressures. GAO noted that “67 percent reported observing worker fear of disciplinary action for reporting an injury or illness, and 46 percent said that this fear of disciplinary action has at least a minor impact on the accuracy of employers’ injury and illness records.”

GAO made four recommendations to improve injury and illness verification: OSHA should require employee interviews, minimize the time lag between incident and audit, update its list of high-hazard industries, and increase outreach efforts to help employers more accurately record data.

In response to the report, Acting Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Jordan Barab acknowledged “GAO’s analysis makes clear that there is a need to improve the accuracy of employer-provided injury and illness data” and pledged to take action on all four of GAO’s recommendations.

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