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State of Safety 2015


Key points

  • Inaccurate injury data hinders prevention initiatives.
  • BLS data comes from employer records, which may be inaccurate due to workers hiding injuries or employers lacking proper recordkeeping knowledge, according to one source.
  • A solution for gathering more accurate data – either from using alternative sources or through OSHA collection initiatives – has support but comes with its own drawbacks.

What is the state of safety?

It’s a question Safety+Health explores every year by speaking with experts and looking at the most recent data.

The largest national source of occupational injury and illness data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. This survey provides an estimate of nonfatal injuries nationwide, allowing stakeholders to get a clearer picture of workplace safety in the United States.

Accurate data leads to a better understanding of injuries and illnesses, and plays a key role in regulatory, enforcement and research decisions. But data gathered from inaccurate recordkeeping that underreports or undercounts injuries and illnesses can have repercussions.

“Underreporting obscures reality and misleads all the key stakeholders when issues of work and health are discussed,” states a commentary published in a special issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (Vol. 57, No. 10).

Underreporting is occurring. Several studies conducted over the past few years – including those published in the journal’s special issue – have concluded that the SOII undercounts the number of workplace injuries and illnesses occurring throughout the country.

The problem

The full extent of the problem is unknown – no studies have examined injury and illness undercounting on a national scale. However, Ken Kolosh, statistics department manager at the National Safety Council, said research has been conducted at the state level, and stakeholders can use the data to conclude that a “significant” undercounting issue exists nationwide.

The issue needs to be addressed, according to Les Boden, a professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, who contributed to studies published in the special issue of AJIM.

“If injuries and illnesses are undercounted by as much as 50 or 60 percent, then they appear to be less of a problem than they really are,” Boden said.

The AJIM commentary was authored by Emily Spieler, Edwin W. Hadley Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston; and Gregory Wagner, a senior advisor at NIOSH. It lists consequences of inaccurate or underreported injury data, including:

  • An inability for state and federal agencies to evaluate risks and develop effective enforcement initiatives
  • Diminished appreciation for the economic toll of injuries
  • Misdirected occupational safety and health research
  • Reduced pressure on employers, health agencies and legislators to lower exposure to occupational health hazards

Workplace fatalities

In 2013, 4,405 workers were killed on the job, according to preliminary data released in September by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is a decline from the 2012 final fatal work injury count of 4,628. The number of deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers also fell between 2012 and 2013, with 3.2 deaths occurring in 2013 compared with a rate of 3.4 the previous year.

Final workplace fatality counts typically increase by about 165 cases from the preliminary count. If this year’s preliminary figure conforms to the average, the fatal worker injury total will still fall below the 2012 total, continuing the ongoing trend of declining injuries. Final 2013 fatality data is expected in early 2015.

Fatalities did not decrease uniformly, however. Fatal work injuries rose 7 percent among Hispanic or Latino workers – the only racial or ethnic group whose fatal work injuries increased from 2012 to 2013. Two-thirds of these deaths involved foreign-born workers. Of the 845 total fatal work injuries involving foreign-born workers, nearly half were born in Mexico. “We need to find better ways to protect foreign-born workers,” said Ken Kolosh, statistics department manager at the National Safety Council.

The source

Inaccurate data is the result of a number of issues. For starters, BLS data comes from employers, who have to be aware of an injury before it can be recorded. Information about a worker injury that occurred offsite or on a different shift may never make it back to the individuals responsible for recordkeeping.

Employees also may choose not to report an injury. Workers’ compensation laws passed in the past 20 years have made it difficult in some states for injured employees to apply for and receive benefits. As a result, Boden said, workers have less incentive to report injuries.

Employment stability is a factor, too. Fewer workers have long-term, secure jobs. The less job security an individual has, the more he or she might worry that reporting an injury may threaten his or her employment, Boden claims.

In a study published in the special issue of AJIM, researchers found that 90 percent of employers in Washington state did not comply with OSHA recordkeeping regulations, which could directly contribute to BLS undercounting injuries.

Sara Wuellner, co-author of the study, is an epidemiologist for the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention Program at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. She said employers may not comply with recordkeeping requirements for a number of reasons.

For instance, employers may lack proper education on the requirements, or previously had been given inaccurate information. Maybe they received recordkeeping training decades ago, and need a refresher course. Or perhaps they simply did not know about the requirements in the first place. “People in certain industries or certain employers make the effort to educate themselves,” Wuellner said. “But that seems to be a small portion.”

Photo credits: Yuliyan Velchev/iStock/Thinkstock; outer diamond images (clockwise from top): Emily Lai/Hemera/Thinkstock; eric1513/iStock/Thinkstock; Patrick Heagney/Getty Images; aerogondo/iStock/Thinkstock; thavornc/iStock/Thinkstock; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Christian Lagereek/iStock/Thinkstock; manfredxy/iStock/Thinkstock; center image: phil morley/iStock/Thinkstock

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