More data, more problems?
A forthcoming rule may increase the amount and timeliness of injury data available to OSHA and the public. But stakeholders have concerns.
- Collecting more data on a regular basis can help OSHA and researchers identify developing problems in a more timely manner, the agency asserts.
- Because the publicly released data will identify companies, some safety professionals fear the rules could lead to the underreporting of injuries, as well as employers focusing more on lagging data management and less on leading preventive initiatives.
- Stakeholders have questioned whether OSHA is up to the task of removing private employee information from thousands of injury logs intended for public view.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. employers are required to keep and maintain injury records. This data, which could be used to identify emerging trends or help improve injury prevention efforts, is – for the most part – kept out of public view.
OSHA is aiming to change that.
The agency is pursuing two unrelated rulemakings that would require employers to turn over, on a regular basis, much of their injury and illness data. The first was published in September and, beginning Jan. 1, will require employers to report to OSHA workplace incidents such as hospitalizations and amputations. (See Part 1 of this series, New OSHA reporting requirements.)
The second rule – which at press time was going through the rulemaking process – is broader in scope. Through the collection of massive amounts of employer injury data, the rule has the potential to offer a much clearer picture of the injuries occurring.
“The proposed rule may help increase workplace safety by making timely, establishment-specific injury/illness information public and easily available so employers, employees and researchers can work together on improving workplace safety,” Jim Johnson, vice president of Workplace Safety Initiatives for the National Safety Council, said in comments submitted to OSHA in support of the rule.
However, not everyone is pleased. Concerns are being raised about privacy issues, data accuracy and whether OSHA can handle what the rule is proposing.
Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses
Introduced in November 2013, OSHA’s Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule proposes updating and modernizing the agency’s injury and illness reporting system. The rule would apply only to employers currently required to keep and maintain injury and illness logs.
Employers with more than 250 workers would be required to electronically submit – on a quarterly basis – information from their injury and illness records. Similarly, employers with 20 to 249 employees in industries that have a days away from work, job restriction or job transfer rate averaging 2.0 or greater would be required to electronically submit information from their annual summary form (OSHA 300a).
Enterprises with multiple worksites would be responsible for reporting to OSHA the injuries and illnesses at each of those sites, as well as any companies falling under its umbrella. This provision is known as enterprise-wide reporting, which OSHA claims could help detect systematic safety problems at a corporation.
OSHA would make much of the data it collects available on its website as part of a searchable database, including:
- All data fields from the 300a form
- All data fields from the 300 form (log of work-related injuries and illnesses), except the employee’s name
- Certain data fields from the OSHA 301 form (incident report), including the time of the event, what the employee was doing prior to the incident, what occurred, what the injury or illness was, and what object directly harmed the employee
Final action on the rule is expected in March, according to the spring 2014 regulatory agenda. An OSHA representative did not respond to questions about whether the rule is on track to be issued this spring.
Broader, electronic collection
OSHA has repeatedly stated that the proposal does not change many existing rules for employers that currently must keep records and does not affect employers not covered by recordkeeping regulations.
“This proposal does not add any new requirement to keep records; it only modifies an employer’s obligation to transmit these records to OSHA,” agency chief David Michaels said in a November 2013 statement announcing the proposed rule.
However, the American Industrial Hygiene Association has raised concerns that the rule could lead to a shift in resources for employers: Instead of focusing on injury prevention, they might become more concerned about data management.
“Employers only have so many resources to devote to all functions of the workplace – health and safety included,” Aaron Trippler, government affairs director for Falls Church, VA-based AIHA, told Safety+Health.
Some employers may feel a need to increase resources for data collection to help ensure accuracy because the data is being released to the public. Although OSHA estimates that employers will need an average of 29 minutes per quarter to submit the data, the agency acknowledges that large establishments with many recordables may be looking at “multiple hours.”
The most controversial aspect of the rule is the public release of injury and illness data.
“Do I want researchers to have access to good data? Absolutely. I don’t think that means it needs to be on the World Wide Web and identifiable by my enterprise, and my ZIP code,” Miles Free, director of industry research and technology for the Cleveland-based Precision Machined Products Association, said during a January 2014 public meeting on the proposal.
Several individuals and organizations – including the National Safety Council – are concerned about how OSHA will ensure the privacy of the injured worker.
The agency has said it would be responsible for “scrubbing” personal data off the logs it releases to the public. Given the thousands of logs the agency would come across every quarter, many attendees at the January meeting questioned OSHA’s ability to do that.
“Are you really prepared to do that for all the stuff that’s going to come in quarterly, and do you have the resources for that?” Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, asked during the meeting. “That sounds like a substantial job that’s going to have to happen.”
Some of this personal data may be easy to remove. Information contained in specific data fields, such as the employee’s name, address and date of birth, can be wholly blocked out for public release. Scrubbing employees’ personal information from the narrative fields – which describe in detail what occurred and how – may not be so easy. It would entail scanning the narrative for the information and eliminating it, as opposed to simply blocking out an entire data field.
Some stakeholders assert that even if an injured worker’s personal details were “scrubbed” from the data OSHA releases, it still may be possible to identify that injured worker – especially in tight-knit communities.