Will OSHA Target Under-Reporting on Injuries?

Department of LAbor logoOSHA has just put in place new requirements for employers to report injuries online, but, once the data is collected, what does OSHA want to do with all that information?  The quick answer is – put it on the internet where the whole world can see your company safety stats.  But dig a little deeper and it appears clear that the agency is still trying to figure out what it will do with the information, partially because OSHA has a deep-seated belief that companies are under reporting their injuries on a large scale.   If so, it would challenge the credibility of the data and penalize honest companies.

How large might the problem be?  One recent study by the University of California-Davis claims that agricultural worker injuries are under-reported to the tune of 77 percent.  That is an extreme case and the study’s authors say agriculture is the most under-reported industry in America, in part because:

  1. Small farms are exempted from the reporting requirements and
  2. An estimated half of farm workers are undocumented foreign workers, often brought in by hiring bosses who handle their employment and living arrangements.

Even if agriculture doesn’t represent other U.S. industries, officials have long believed that under-reporting is substantial. They have formed a study group under the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to develop a “Smarter National Surveillance System for Occupational Safety and Health.”  At their first meeting held last week the under-reporting issue was high on the list of problems to look at.

Why is there under-reporting?  The answer are complex.   A national study using Bureau of Labor Statistics data combined with followup interviews with company managers who fill out the OSHA forms estimated that companies may under-report by nearly 40 percent.   While some cheating undoubtedly goes on, the researchers found a number of other causes, the main one being confusion over what to report and how to use the OSHA formulas.   Differing views on who should report injuries to temps or contractors is cited as another problem.

The relationship between workers comp and OSHA injury reporting is another weakness in the system.   Companies with higher workers comp claims may have lower OSHA injury rates.  However, the two systems follow different rules and track somewhat different events.

Is under-reporting really a problem?  Some question whether there really is a substantial under-reporting problem at all.  Critics point out that OSHA has focused a lot of time and resources on identifying companies that under-report without finding very much actual evidence and few violators.

The issue won’t go away.  If OSHA believes under-reporting is as widespread as it appears, it will be under pressure to fix it.  The new reporting rules, with their emphasis on encouraging workers to blow the whistle on employers that fail to report injuries, will likely put new emphasis on companies that are not reporting.  Just think about how a company that reports its injuries and has them made public on the internet will react to a competitor that has a suspiciously lower rate.

There is an old Will Rogers quote, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” If the gap between what is reported through the new requirements and what is actually happening, it will tend to skew any results that can be drawn from the new reports.  Given the difficulty of hiding a severe injury (hospitalization, death, amputation or lost eye), we might anticipate that under-reporting would gravitate around less significant injuries.  If the data isn’t reliable, it raises questions of what to do with it and, if we can’t answer those questions, why are we collecting it?

All of that means that the work of the study group is particularly interesting.  It will also be worth watching OSHA’s actions closely as it sets up the guidance and architecture of the new reporting process.

Time For Your Occupational Health Program to Grow Up! – Five Keys to Working With an Aging Workforce

Most company occupational health programs address two things:

  1. What testing do we need to bring a new worker on board and
  2. What do we do if a worker gets hurt.

But there is growing evidence that they need to be looking at the changing occupational health needs of workers as they age.   While it is tempting to treat an employee with 20 years of experience the same as we did when he went through his initial onboarding process at 24, that is not reality.

Government studies make it clear that the workforce is aging and as it ages its needs are changing.  Reports from U.S. Census Bureau indicate that one-third of the total U.S. workforce is at least 50 years old.  The number of 50+ year old workers is expected to be about 115 million by 2020.

The value of older Americans working longer is obvious.  More expertise and skills, better leadership and quality leadership for the next generation of workers.   But there is a downside from an occupational health standpoint.  According to a University of Wisconsin study quoted in government reports:

The incidence of disability among working age Americans is: 9.5 percent for workers in the 18- to 24-year-old range, 20+ percent for workers in the 45- to-54-year-old range, and approximately 42 percent for workers in the 65+ age range. Older people are also more likely to have multiple disabling conditions and to have chronic disabling conditions.

How should a company address this potential exposure, for the good of the worker and for the company?  Here are five tips:

  1. Develop realistic job descriptions, including accurate functional requirements, and review them regularly to include any trends in disability cases.
  2. Determine possible light duty and job accommodations before anyone suffers an injury.  This may include job assessments to understand the actual hazards and requirements of a job.   Again, don’t wait until someone is hurt to look at options.
  3. Have a clear return-to-work program.  Expect that knees, hips and backs are going to go out. Make sure you know what it takes for someone to be effective in their jobs and not exacerbate a health problem when they get back.
  4. Expand your wellness program to focus on workers with potentially life-threatening health problems.  One of the most cost-effective and proven wellness programs involves monitoring and assisting workers who have critical health issues.
  5. Focus on early intervention and case management for on the job injuries.  This really applies to all workplaces, but it is especially important when dealing with the types of muscular/skeletal system injuries that may occur with an older workforce.  Expert medical advice and providing the right treatment at the right time can keep a small injury from becoming a major one, speed the time it takes an employee to get back to work and increase employee engagement.

An aging workforce should be seen as a positive thing, an investment in skill and knowledge that pays huge benefits for companies.   However, keeping that workforce healthy and engaged takes a different approach to occupational health than the one that applies to a company of 20-somethings.

  • Do you need help making sure you have the right occupational health program for all of your workers?  
  • Do you need a gap analysis of your program to see what you may be missing?  
  • What about your post-incident injury management program?  

CORE Health Network is an integrated occupational health company that provides both traditional clinic services and telemedicine approaches to help you manage your workforce.   Contact kwells@corehealthnet.com to find out how you can make sure your employees get the help they need and that you have the right approach to minimizing recordables and workers comp.  


Going To ASSE? Let’s Meet Up!

If you are going to the ASSE Safety 2016 Conference in Atlanta June 26-29, let’s try to get together.   It looks like it will be a great show with a lot of valuable information.   If you plan on going, contact me at kenwells@lifelinestrategies.com or drop by CORE Health Network’s booth (Booth #2643).



New Towboat Regs – Is it Safety Management or Inspection?

uscg logoThe new towboat Subchapter M regulations don’t come out officially until next week, but given the delay in releasing them and the towing industry’s level of interest, the Coast Guard did everyone a favor and released an advance copy.

At just under 800 pages, the document will take quite a while to analyze and fully understand.   But the quick headline is that anyone who was looking for a traditional physical/mechanical inspection program will be disappointed, but so will anyone who hoped it would be a true safety management system.   It is more of a hybrid that calls on industry to have management systems for their boats, but also reflects the Coast Guard’s conviction that vessels need to meet design and maintenance standards.

The rule was created with industry at the table and it represents many years of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.  In fact much of the final regulation looks like the Responsible Carrier Program (RCP), a safety management system approach developed by the American Waterways Operators a dozen years ago.   The regulation does have an opt-out section that says towing companies can go through a traditional inspection if they choose not to prepare their own safety management system.

The full regulation will take some time to interpret the regulations, but here are some initial observations:

  1.  Although most towing companies are already complying with the RCP or the International Safety Maritime Code, it would a mistake for them to think they are in compliance with the new regulation.   Every company needs to read the regulation carefully and ensue that there are no gaps in their current approach.
  2. Training is coming to the towing industry in a big way.   Beyond the captain, companies are not required to provide much in the way of training under current regulations.  That changes with the new Subchapter M rules.  Companies will be required to provide a range of training for new employees and the training needs to be provided within five days of hiring.
  3. The emphasis in the regulations on the requirements for auditors or surveyors could be a problem.  That may be a lesson from the offshore oil and gas Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) regulations. The audit process there has often focused on whether the paperwork is done properly at the expense of looking at whether the program works and makes the operator safety.  Time will tell whether the towboat rules become a tool for continuous improvement or just a box checking exercise.
  4. The Coast Guard has tried to stagger compliance to give companies time to implement the program, but that time will pass in the blink of an eye.  Every industry that has adopted safety management systems has found that it took longer to implement and to get the bugs out than they ever imagined.  Towboat owners are advised to not waste any time in adopting the new requirements.

If you are a towing company that needs to comply with the new regulation, consider bringing Lifeline Strategies in to:

  1. Do a gap review of your existing system,
  2. Develop a plan if you do not have one
  3. Provide a database to manage your program or
  4. Help develop a training program for your crew.  

We are one of the few companies that has had experience in developing towing industry, ISM and oil and gas SEMS plans.  Let us help smooth your path to compliance.   Contact us at info@lifelinestrategies.com. 

Safety Costs Too Much? You Can’t Afford to Not Be Safe!

taller de ilustracion digital - 212Sometimes safety department heads are their own worst enemies when it comes to the costs of their programs.  Too often they accept that safety is a sunk cost that doesn’t produce revenue and, as anyone with experience knows, programs that don’t produce revenue are always at risk.   When it is budget time, these managers prepare their spread sheets and hope they don’t get cut too badly.

There is a better way and it starts long before the annual budget exercise.   The key is remembering that there are two sides to the P&L sheet – Profits and losses.   Profits are best, but reducing losses are a close second.   The challenge for safety managers is to “monitize” prevention, meaning to find a way to attach dollar values to the accidents and injuries that the program prevents.

There are two good ways to do this:

  • Cost of Injuries: OSHA has developed an online tool that tells you the estimated cost of most common occupational injuries.  The site is called “OSHA’s $afety Pays Program.”  It allows you to enter an injury and then generates the direct costs (treatment and care) as well as the indirect costs (production delays, administrative costs, etc.).   Then it takes it a step further and looks at how much the company needs to earn in sales to cover the incident, factoring in the company’s profit margin to arrive at total sales.  For example, the calculator says an incident that results in a concussion may have direct and indirect costs of $ 127,617.  if the company has a profit margin of three percent on sales, it would need to generate nearly $4.3 million in sales to cover the cost of that incident.

So looking at your program, did you reduce incidents last year?  Are your recordables below your industry’s average?   Put a dollar value on it.

  • Near Miss Data: I’ve written about a program called DROPS, which looks at the potential for a dropped object to result in serious injuries or fatalities.  The DROPS concept is based on a recognition that an object dropped from a height may not hit anyone, but if that object had fallen just a little bit in one direction or another it could have caused a serious accident.   It uses a spreadsheet formula to determine the force of the falling object (and consequently the seriousness of the incident).

Variations of that approach can be used to analyze a variety of near-miss incidents.  That is one more reason why  it is important to do root-cause analysis on near misses as well as incidents.   Understanding the accidents that almost happened helps you avoid the real thing in the future.  In the case of budgets, it lets you understand and quantify your company’s financial exposure as well.

Within a company, the financial statements are everything.  Understanding how safety fits on the ledger sheet is critical to having a healthy, effective safety program.

Government Calls For Offshore Safety Culture, But Is Anyone Listening?

deepwater horizon explosionOne of the most valuable things to come out of all of the studies and reports that followed the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was a push for improved safety culture.   It marked a recognition that new regulations, increased training and improvements to technology would only have limited success if the company working offshore couldn’t pull all of those pieces together into one coherent approach.  It is like weaving different strands of yarn together into on piece of fabric. We call that fabric the company safety culture.

In the last month, a group called the National Academy of Sciences, which was tasked by government regulators to study offshore safety culture, came out with its final report.  You can access it here and anyone who cares about offshore safety should read it.

Unfortunately, it received very little attention from the industry, the media or even the government officials who asked for it.   The group made a number of important observations and recommendations, including:

  • Leadership on safety culture is uneven.   Some companies have fostered very strong cultures, but with others, “Leaders who reward productivity but do not consistently recognize safety performance or send intentional or unintentional messages that safety is not a priority, is too expensive, or is an effort made only to comply with regulations create an environment in which a strong safety culture (and safety) cannot be properly maintained or strengthened.”
  • There is no one ‘Offshore Industry.’  A lot of companies with a lot of roles means there is no shared understanding of safety. “Because of their differing safety perspectives and economic interests, offshore oil
    and gas companies do not all belong to a single industry association that speaks with one voice regarding safety. The fragmented nature of the industry, heterogeneity among companies, and diversity among employees make it a challenge to set consistent goals and implement them through industry-wide agreements. “
  • Regulators have a hard time understanding and enforcing culture. Not a knock against the government agencies, but regulators do best when they enforce concrete, quantifiable standards, not squishy softskills.  As the report says, ” One challenge for all regulators is changing the mind-set of inspectors from inspecting for compliance to advocating safety culture. To this end, inspectors’ skill set will need to be developed such that they are able to help offshore companies implement a safety culture philosophy.”

The real problem and the reason why this report may have received so little attention may be that concepts like safety culture are so hard to nail down and so difficult to change.  For starters, every company has a safety culture already.  It is just that some of them are not very good.   For example, a company that believes that accidents happen and there isn’t much you can do about it, just described a really bad safety culture.

Additionally, offshore E&P is largely an engineer’s world and things like safety culture, human factors and behavioral psychology don’t fit very well on a spreadsheet.  It reminds me of a meeting that offshore regulators had with industry representatives some years ago.   The official said, “We will be lenient if the company was making a best-faith effort to comply with the regulations,” to which an oil company engineer asked, “What does the ‘best-faith effort’ form look like?”   Energy industry and regulators alike always take a compliance approach and safety culture doesn’t fit in that box.

The classic definition of a safety culture is one that starts with safety commitment at the top, has open communications throughout the organization and is  constantly looking for ways to improve safety.  But there are plenty of companies where the C-suite doesn’t get involved in deck-level safety but have good records because the front-line workers watch out for each other.  Similarly, we know companies that look like they are doing everything right and have a string of unfortunate incidents.

In my experience, the critical factor is whether the supervisors are committed and how they perceive their role in protecting their crews.  I see them as safety culture “gurus.”  Management needs supervisors and mid-level managers to be the leaders on safety.   When they are doing their jobs right, front-line workers model their behavior.  They are the people who are most likely to recognize hazards on scene and they are the people you need to listen to when a new process is implemented in the company.

The most immediate problem we find in the oil and gas industry right now is the impact of low prices and cuts on safety culture.   I maintain that safety done right does not have to be prohibitively expensive.   But it is perceived as a cost center and so safety programs are vulnerable.   The National Academy report recognizes this threat: “The cyclic nature of the offshore oil and gas industry translates to frequent reductions in experienced staff during downturns and subsequent employment and training of relatively inexperienced workers during upturns.”

One thing is clear, safety culture is not a mathematical formula or a recipe for baking brownies.  Each company is different.  It is like a famous quote from a Supreme Court Justice in an obscenity case.  He said he couldn’t define it, but “I know it when I see it.”

Where is your safety culture?   Does your company send one coherent message on safety to your employees, your customers and government regulators?   If you would like to talk about improving safety culture or identifying proven steps to integrating safety throughout your organization, contact us at info@lifelinestrategies.com.



Safety Risk That Even A Kid Can Understand

When I first saw this video, I thought “Man, safety directors are just getting younger and younger.”   But in fact, this is a very clever video that features kids describing the Top 10 OSHA Violations.   It was produced by a company named BROWZ to celebrate National Safety Month.

You can see the video here:

There is a good write-up on it on the EHS Today website.

What can you do with the video?   You might try showing it at your next safety meeting to drive home the hazards that crews face every day and, just maybe to remind them that when a worker forgets about those hazards, there is likely to be someone at home who will be impacted by the loss.

Or you can just recruit these kids to be your future EHS team.  They certainly have an early start on a career in safety.

OSHA Haz Com Deadline is Here, but Half of U.S. Business May Not Be Ready

This is more of an update to drive home the point that a major change in workplace safety has hit and many, many businesses are not ready.   OSHA gave employers until June 1st to update their hazard communication programs to incorporate international changes known as the Globally Harmonized Standard (GHS).

An article by the Chemical Watch website says that half of American businesses have not met the new update deadline.  That is based on a survey of 108 companies.  Here is why that is such a concern – Of the companies that said they are in compliance, three quarters reported that it took them more than a year to achieve that compliance.  The biggest problem they had was getting the up-to-day data sheets from their chemical suppliers.  More than half said they had either brought in a consultant or hired a new employee to help manage their program, update it or train employees on the change.

Bottom Line: Industry has not responded as quickly or with as much commitment at OSHA had hoped for.  Large numbers of companies are out of compliance and it is very likely that many of them do not even realize the rules changed.   OSHA has very few options beyond making an example of some employers through fines and publicity.

If you need help getting into compliance, doing a gap analysis of your program or in training your workers on your Haz Com program, contact us at info@lifelinestrategies.com.