An 'alarming' report

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The Government Accountability Office finds fear, intimidation may influence the accuracy of injury and illness data

By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

Fear and intimidation among workers, employers and health care practitioners may lead to what many critics have long suspected: the underreporting of occupational injuries and illnesses, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in November. “Many of the problems identified in the report (.pdf file) are quite alarming, and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting,” Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a press release. She called accurate injury and illness records from businesses “vital” to protecting workers.

During interviews with stakeholders and occupational health practitioners, GAO found some workers may not report work-related injuries or illnesses out of fear of losing their job or missing out on incentives based on low injury and illness rates. Similarly, employers may not record injuries and illnesses to keep workers’ compensation costs from increasing or out of fear of losing contract bids for new work. Additionally, more than one-third of occupational health practitioners surveyed by GAO reported being pressured by employers or workers to provide insufficient medical treatment as a means to downplay the seriousness of the injury and avoid having to record it. Nearly half of the practitioners said such pressure leads to a minor impact on the accuracy of injury and illness data, and 15 percent said it had a major impact.

“The widespread underreporting so clearly documented in this report is undermining the health and safety of American workers,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) said in a press release. “We need to take steps to require employers to provide a full account of on-the-job injuries and to protect workers so they can report workplace incidents without fear of retaliation.” Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, had requested GAO issue the report, along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and California Democrats Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey.

According to Woolsey, the report highlights the need to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067, S. 1580), which would prevent employers from implementing safety incentive programs GAO indicated discourage accurate recordkeeping. The act also would give additional protection to whistleblowers who report injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions.

GAO recommended OSHA:

  • Require inspectors to interview workers during records audits. GAO found OSHA audits overlook information from workers – the only data source not provided by employers.
  • Minimize the amount of time between the date when injuries and illnesses are recorded by employers and the date audited by OSHA. Many audits were conducted two years after the original incident, and inspectors found many of the injured or ill workers were no longer employed at the worksite.
  • Increase education and training to employers on recordkeeping standards. Some stakeholder interviews and survey results indicated people responsible for recording injuries and illnesses have a lack of understanding of OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements.

Assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab – who at deadline was serving as acting administrator – issued a statement welcoming the report, and said the agency would take up all of GAO’s recommendations. The report came just weeks after OSHA announced a National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping.

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