For the first time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must release injury and illness rates for the worst American workplaces, according to the decision of a U.S. District Court judge issued last month.

For years, OSHA has published the names of American companies with unusually high numbers of workplace injuries and illnesses. Last year, for the first time, it included construction companies. However, the list never included specific information on the companies’ actual injury rates nor a comparative ranking.

After reporter David Barstow’s 2002 investigation and starling expose of persistent safety violations at Tyler (TX) pipe foundry won national acclaim, the New York Times asked OSHA for specific information on the 13,000 companies on the worst record list.

OSHA asserted that specific information could not be disclosed because it was confidential commercial data. OSHA said that, because the injury statistics are expressed in terms of lost work days, competitors could use them to calculate how many hours a company’s employees worked, a figure companies like to keep to themselves. According to OSHA, before releasing this information, it would have to secure clearance from all 13,000 companies, a burdensome task.

The Times sought the information under the Freedom of Information Act, saying that without the information it was difficult for reporters or the public to know which workplaces are the most dangerous. In addition, failure to disclose specific information made it impossible to assess whether OHSA regulatory practice is effective in bringing about improvements.

Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District in Manhattan noted that since 2003, OSHA has required companies to post at work sites the number of hours employees worked, so the information no longer is confidential. The decision applies only to 2002 injury data. The U.S. Labor Department, of which OSHA is a part, is reviewing the decision to determine if it will appeal.

[Steve Clark]