For more than a decade, occupational safety and health professionals questioned increasingly rosy government claims that injury and fatality rates in U.S. industry were falling, but OSHA’s assertion last year that rates had dropped a whopping 19 percent since 2001 – when the Bush Administration took office – provoked a flurry of fact-checking.

Now, according to an analysis in the July issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, it appears that the “decline” in injuries and illness is almost exclusively the result of changes in injury and illness reporting requirements instituted by the Department of Labor in 2001.

“OSHA wants to justify its changed focus from standards-setting to voluntary programs,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, “so it has cited data comparisons that are scientifically flawed. Those erroneous comparisons foster a false sense of progress among the public and our elected representatives. They belittle the real danger, promote complacency and leave workers – particularly non-union workers without the benefit of labor-management jobsite safety collaboration – increasingly unprotected and vulnerable.”

Checking Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao’s assertion that “workplace injuries and illnesses in 2005 were at an all-time low,” researchers Lee Friedman and Linda Forst at the University of Illinois tracked BLS data back to 1992. They observed two “elbows” where the number of reported injury and illness incidents began to show a significant decline (see graph). In both cases, the drop-off began in conjunction with newly relaxed OSHA reporting requirements. The researchers determined that 83 percent of the observed decline can only be attributed to changes in recordkeeping.

In a report in Occupational Hazards (May 1, 2007), Garrett Brown, a compliance officer with Cal/OSHA and the volunteer coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, also disputed OSHA’s claim. Noting just the “tip of the iceberg,” Brown listed seven occasions between June 2004 and December 2006 in which federal OSHA or Cal/OSHA cited a major corporation – often with a willful citation – for deliberate failure to report injuries and illness. Typical were 33 citations issued to Volks Constructors of Baton Rouge (LA) for failure to complete the OSHA Form 301 (first report of an injury), failure to record 102 injuries on the Log 300, certification of Log 300s that were incorrect or incomplete and failure to provide the Log 300 and Form 301 upon request.

“While it is difficult to ‘prove’ a negative…,” Brown wrote, “[these] recent high-profile investigations of corporate safety culture indicate that ‘creative accounting’ has been done in the safety realm as well as in the financial records scandals of Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Anderson. If so many major corporations have been willing to mislead investors and the Securities Exchange Commission about sales, profits and executives’ pay, it is not surprising that ‘cooked injury and illness books’ resulting in significant economic gains to employers have also occurred.”

The distortion of national injury and illness data by deliberate misreporting is augmented by underreporting of other sorts. For instance, the BLS does not survey self-employed individuals who now make up seven percent of the nation’s workforce and are an increasingly common form of sub-contracting in construction and other industries.    In addition, the surge in employment of non-English-speaking immigrants, many illegal and uninsured, has undoubtedly allowed many employers – particularly in small-scale and residential construction – to misclassify and underreport injuries. Researchers at the University of California at Davis estimate that 69 percent of nonfatal injuries are missed by the BLS survey.

“Unions help ensure a consistent focus on jobsite safety, but government oversight is also necessary to maintain that focus throughout our industry,” says Sabitoni. “We’re doing our part, but OSHA, under this administration, has let workers down. If injury and fatality rates had really fallen by 19 percent since 2001, we at LIUNA would be the first to offer praise, but eased reporting does not show progress. The reporting system and its gaps should be corrected. What we need from government is accurate assessments and real urgency on behalf of workers’ safety.”

[Steve Clark]