GAO report says employer policies discourage workers from reporting injuries

The US Government Accountability Office recently released a report stating that employer safety records that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration use to gauge workplace safety in high hazard industries are often inaccurate because of employer safety policies that reward under reporting and punish accurate reporting. In 2009, the GAO issued a report stating that fear of reprisals caused workers to forgoe reporting injuries or job-related illnesses.

The under reporting, according to both reports, allows employers engaged in hazardous activities  to qualify for a voluntary reward program that exempts them from routine OSHA safety inspections. The more recent report says that OSHA has done little to correct the problem of inaccurate safety records.

The 2009 report stated that even though OSHA audits safety records kept by employers in high hazard industries, the audit rarely interviews workers to verify the information in the records. The report also said that disincentives may discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. The threat of being fired or disciplined is one example of disincentives that the GAO report cites.

According to the report, 67 percent of occupational health and safety stakeholders and occupational health and safety practitioners “reported observing worker fear of disciplinary action for reporting an injury or illness, and 46 percent said that this fear of disciplinary action has at least a minor impact on the accuracy of employer injury and illness records.”

The 2009 report suggested some steps that OSHA could take to improve the accuracy of safety records including interviewing workers during audits of the records, minimizing the time between the date of reported injuries and the date of OSHA record audits, updating the list of high hazard industries that have their records audited, and training employers on injury reporting standards.

The more recent report found that rate-based safety programs provide an incentive to under report injuries and that 75 percent of the companies audited by OSHA use rate-based safety programs.

Rate-based safety programs usually combine incentives and punishments for keeping injury rates below a certain level. As a result, workers may be reluctant to report injuries or illnesses because they are afraid that doing so might either jeopardize a safety bonus or result in punishment.

The United Steelworkers has long campaigned against company safety policies that discourage workers from reporting injuries. “Such programs make employers’ injury rates look good while job hazards go unidentified and uncorrected,” said Leo Gerard, president of USW. “We’ve seen far too many tragedies and catastrophes in facilities where employers are playing these numbers games.”

The new report says that OSHA could work with companies that use rate-based safety programs to convince them to switch to behavior-based safety programs that eliminate disincentives for reporting injuries. Behavior-based safety programs encourage open communication between workers and employers.

But so far, OSHA has done little to encourage companies to switch from reporting policies that create disincentives to record injuries accurately, and according to the new report has not acted on implementing the GAO’s 2009 suggestions for improving the accuracy of its injury reports.

Gerard called on OSHA to act on recommendations by GAO in both reports. “OSHA (must) move forward swiftly with a regulation that would require employers to implement effective injury and illness prevention programs and outlaw programs that discourage job-related injury and illness reporting,” Gerard said.

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