“When it comes to reporting on-the-job injuries and illness, it’s not surprising that some employers try to fudge the numbers,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, referring to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) November report that casts doubt on the accuracy of federal data that underpin OSHA and other workplace safety programs. “What’s startling is the way the Bush Administration Labor Department turned a deaf ear to this obvious problem.”

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

Under OSHA rules, all employers are required to record and report every work-related injury or illness that results in lost work time or medical treatment other than first aid. Yet, companies with higher injury and illness rates face higher workers’ compensation insurance costs, and they encounter more difficulty winning contracts. Given such consequences, incentives to cheat are always present, and the GAO found that many employers avoid medical treatment or shop around for doctors who provide diagnoses that avoid recordable events.  The GAO adds that workers sometimes go along with underreporting because they fear being fired or disciplined or are worried that they and their co-workers may lose incentive rewards that are predicated on low- or zero-injury reports.

These realities were ignored or covered-up during the Bush years when the Department of Labor (DOL) and its Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) routinely touted steadily declining injury and fatality rates. LIUNA and the LHSFNA were among critics who questioned the data, noting that 83 percent of the reported drop in injuries could be statistically attributed merely to changes in OSHA recordkeeping requirements.   Nevertheless, the rosy, official pronouncements, repeated annually, contributed to a regulatory regime and legislative agenda that backed away from standards and enforcement in favor of voluntary programs of industrial self-regulation.

The GAO report cites academic studies which suggest that OSHA misses up to two-thirds of all workplace injuries and illness. The problem is OSHA’s “sole reliance” on employer-reported data, says the report. Responding to the critique, Obama Administration DOL leaders said OSHA would adopt the GAO’s recommendations, which include requiring OSHA inspectors to interview employees during all audits to check the accuracy of employer reporting. The GAO identified other ways to improve the reliability of OSHA data verification as well.

“The fact is,” says O’Sullivan, “today, we simply do not know the nature and full extent of our nation’s workplace safety problems, except that they’re worse than has been reported. Even now, with an Administration committed to improved regulation, the lack of reliable data hampers us in attacking these problems. OSHA’s decision to accept the GAO criticism is a welcome one, and we look forward to more useful data in the years to come.”

O’Sullivan also points out that for LIUNA signatory employers, compliance with OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements has always been the norm. “Despite full reporting, however, our signatory contractors benefit from highly-trained union workers and superior safety programs that draw workers into broad efforts to keep injuries and illness to a minimum,” says O’Sullivan. “The sustained success of a company’s safety program translates into more successful bids, lower comp costs and a stronger bottom line.”

[Steve Clark]