Enforcement and Inspection

OSHA Under Fire: Reporting, Enforcement Criticized

According to a growing number of reports, OSHA has been seriously understating workplace injuries and illnesses — and relying on flawed audits rather than addressing the problem.

Don’t look now, OSHA, but the shoe is on the other foot.

The agency that inspects America’s workplaces is itself coming under increasing scrutiny, with lawmakers and academics accusing OSHA of lax enforcement and grossly underreporting workplace injuries and illnesses.

The result, they claim, is a distorted picture of worker injuries and illnesses statistics — and workplaces that are becoming increasingly dangerous.

Last month the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor released a highly critical report titled “Hidden Tragedy: Underreporting of Workplace injuries and Illnesses.”

“Top officials at the Department of Labor (DOL) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) often cite declining injury, illness and fatality numbers to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs and to fight off criticism that OSHA has abandoned its original mission of setting and enforcing workplace safety and health standards,” the report states.

“But extensive evidence from academic studies, media reports, and worker testimony shows that work-related injuries and illnesses in the United States are chronically and even grossly underreported,” the report continues. “As much as 69 percent of injuries and illnesses may never make it into the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), the nation’s annual workplace safety and health “report card” generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If these estimates are accurate, the nation’s workers may be suffering three times as many injuries and illnesses as official reports indicate.” (Emphasis added.)

Despite these reports, “OSHA has failed to address the problem, relying on ineffective audits to argue that the numbers are accurate,” the committee concluded.

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Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced last fall that workplace injury and illness rates for 2006 were the lowest ever recorded and marked the fourth straight year of rate declines for private sector employers.

Not so fast, said several prominent safety researchers. Lee Friedman, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that rather than an actual drop in workplace injuries and illnesses, the statistics merely reflected changes to OSHA recordkeeping rules and regulations.

While OSHA statistics show a 35.8 percent decline in occupational injuries and illnesses between 1992 and 2003, “83% of the decline can be attributed to the change in the OSHA recordkeeping rules,” reports a study by Friedman and Linda Forst.

OSHA’s own Bob Whitmore, an expert in the agency’s recordkeeping requirements, told the Charlotte Observer that OSHA is allowing employers to vastly underreport workplace injuries and illnesses and that the true rate for some industries is probably two to three times what OSHA statistics suggest.

Whitmore said the agency currently is conducting fewer inspections and issuing fewer fines, leaving businesses to police themselves.

To be fair, though, it must be noted that Whitmore has been on administrative leave from OSHA since last July, following a confrontation with a supervisor.

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A major cause of injury and illness underreporting is OSHA’s reliance on self-reporting by employers, the House committee found.

“Employers have strong incentives to underreport injuries and illnesses that occur on the job,” the report states. “Businesses with fewer injuries and illnesses are less likely to be inspected by OSHA; they have lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums; and they have a better chance of winning government contracts and bonuses.”

The committee said that self-reporting lets employers use various strategies that result in underreporting, including:

  • Widespread intimidation and harassment toward workers reporting injuries or illnesses
  • Inadequate medical treatment and having workers return to work too soon after serious injuries so that the injuries are not properly reported
  • Safety incentive programs, which, while usually well intentioned, can have the effect of pressuring workers to not report their injuries.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll look at more criticisms of OSHA – including what some say are outdated and inadequate penalties – as well as a publication that keeps you abreast of the latest news and changes at the agency and what they could mean for your organization.