Washington Update

Washington Update: Targeting hazards, or ‘naming and shaming’?

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OSHA’s recently proposed revision to its Recordkeeping Standard would require nearly half a million establishments to submit their injury and illness data. This is information employers already are required to keep – OSHA would simply collect it.

And then make it public.

Advocates of the rule suggest it would provide stakeholders with more information about where hazards and injuries are occurring, allowing safety professionals and advocacy groups to better target those areas for solutions. It also could prompt businesses to improve safety efforts.

But Oklahoma Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Costello claims making such data open to the public would harm employers’ reputations.

“It’s the functional equivalent of a scarlet letter,” he said Jan. 9 during a stakeholder meeting on the agency’s proposed rule. The practice of “naming and shaming” employers based on their injury rates is an unproven method for improving safety, Costello added, and will prevent job creation.

The idea of shaming employers is not entirely new to the current administration. Early into the Obama presidency, appointed OSHA officials admitted to using press releases about fines to prompt employers to make safety improvements.

Peg Seminario, safety and health director of the AFL-CIO, downplayed Costello’s concerns, pointing out that OSHA has collected similar data and made it publicly available for years. Such data would not be used to “name and shame” employers, Seminario said; instead, it would be used to identify and address problems.

“This proposal can bring a lot of information to a lot of individuals who care about reducing injuries and illnesses,” she said, adding that she hoped the rule would lead to a change in behavior to address workplace safety problems.

One downside Seminario brought up – as did other stakeholders – was that the rule could lead to underreporting of injuries. She said that although she doubted the rule would cause widespread underreporting, OSHA’s proposed revision should contain language that prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who report injuries.

Many people at the meeting voiced what they saw as a greater concern: businesses could be negatively impacted. The rule suggests the public could use the data to help decide on which employers to do business with, claimed Tressi Cordaro, who represented the Coalition for Workplace Safety, a group of employers and associations. However, Cordaro said, the data is skewed because it includes all injuries and illnesses – even those that are not the employer’s fault.

Cordaro presented several potential scenarios, including an employee who sneezed and hurt his or her back, got stung by a bee, or was bitten by a spider or cat. None of these is necessarily the fault of the employer, she said, but they would contribute to the employer’s injury and illness rates.

“Injury and illness records made public without proper context are not a reliable measure of employer safety efforts,” Cordaro said.

This concern was echoed by Miles Free, director of industry research and technology for the Cleveland-based Precision Machined Products Association. Free said although he understands OSHA’s desire to have additional injury and illness data for the agency’s own targeting efforts, members of the public looking up various employers’ records may not fully understand what the rates mean.

“If I plug in my ZIP code to find five companies and say, ‘You’re the bad guy,’ how do I know?” Free said. “I don’t know if this guy had a spike in employment [that could affect injury rates].”

Perhaps most important, the use of shame to drive safety is not endorsed by safety and health professionals, said James Thornton, who spoke on behalf of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Most employers want to do the right thing and send their workers home safely at the end of the day, according to Thornton. He said the proposed rule would change the game for safety professionals, and wondered if safety pros would have to defend their safety efforts rather than focus on proactive measures.

“Will we be getting calls from the public on why our numbers are rising or high compared to others?” he speculated. “It could take energy away from preventing injuries into a defensive mode.”

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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