GAO report critical of OSHA re:workplace recordkeeping

[tweetmeme]The Government Accounting Office (GAO), which serves as the investigative arm of Congress recently issued it’s, WORKPLACE SAFETY AND HEALTH report on injuries and illness reporting (GAO 10-10) at the request of Congress. In it the GAO reported that numerous issues exist within the current record keeping system that lend to the very real possibility of inaccurate and in some cases intentional and deliberate underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses.  The GAO report was very critical of OSHA’s role in the current system as well as employers. The report also noted that the rate of workplace injuries — there were 4 million in 2007, including 5,600 fatalities — has declined fairly steadily since 1992, which OSHA has previously attributed to improvements in workplace safety and the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs, however based on this new report; there may be other reasons the injury rates have fallen.

According to the report OSHA overlooks (i.e., ignores)  information from workers about injuries and illnesses “because it does not routinely interview them as part of its records audits.” The report indicated that OSHA annually audits the records of only a small representative sample or workplaces; about 250 of the approximately 130,000 worksites in the high hazard industries.  Furthermore, OSHA hasn’t always required that inspectors interview the actual workers about injuries and illnesses—the only source of data not provided by employers—which could assist them in evaluating the accuracy of the records.

The report indicated that some OSHA inspectors stated they rarely learn about injuries and illnesses from workers since the records audits are conducted about 2 years after incidents are recorded.  The GAO report noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also collects data on work-related injuries and illnesses recorded by employers through its annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), but it does not verify the accuracy of the data. 

The Associate Press quoted Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis Monday, saying she will move swiftly to correct the problems highlighted in the GAO report. “Many of the problems identified in the report are quite alarming and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting,” Solis said.   What exactly that means is impossible to say.  Without increased funding, or strengthening of the current OSH Act it seems quite likely that the status quo will prevail as Congress moves on into the upcoming election cycle.  The GAO report issued several recommendations including the ones listed below, but without significant overhaul of the current self-reporting system these recommendations aren’t likely to result in meaningful change.

In addition to increased funding for OSHA (for both enforcement and compliance assistance), meaningful change could include educating OSHA personnel on exactly how and why a business operates.  Understanding of the role safety can play in improving the profitability and/or efficiency of an operation currently isn’t part of OSHA’s mission, and puts it at odds with many companies right out of the gate.  Increased communication in seeking a balanced approach to ensure worker safety benefits everyone (i.e., equal parts carrot and stick).   

GAO recommendations:

1. require inspectors to interview workers during records audits, and substitute other workers when those initially selected are unavailable;

2. minimize the time between the date injuries and illnesses are recorded by employers and the date they are audited;

3. update the list of high hazard industries used to select worksites for records audits; and

4. increase education and training to help employers better understand the recordkeeping requirements. OSHA agreed with these recommendations.

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