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.

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