Injury Rates among Public Sector Higher Than Private Sector

[tweetmeme]”Workplace enforcement and safety is not only our responsibility, it’s our moral obligation,” Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told an AFL-CIO audience in September.   “That means the DOL will once again be back in the enforcement business.”   Solis went on to say that between July and September OSHA performed 689 inspections and issued nearly 1,100 violations that resulted in $1.6 million in fines.   The following month Solis announced a record $87 million fine against BP Products North America .   While I applaud Solis and others for their public comments, and what appears to be a sincere belief in the work they are doing, it shouldn’t be taken as a true comprehensive effort at reducing the overall number of injuries and illnesses that occur on the job in America every day.

According to new data available, starting in 2008, nearly 940,000 injury and illness cases were reported among State and local government workers combined, resulting in a rate of 6.3 cases per 100 workers–significantly higher than the rate among private industry workers (3.9 cases per 100 workers).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 80% of injuries and illnesses reported in the public sector occurred among local government workers, resulting in an injury and illness rate of 7.0 cases per 100 workers–significantly higher than the 4.7 cases per 100 workers in State government.  Yet OSHA can’t help these workers, nor can Secretary Solis’ public outcry against employers do anything to help these workers.  They are stuck in limbo with no worker protection measures at all.

OSHA’s regulatory reach is limited to the private sector as well as selected Federal workers.  Although some states have enacted worker protection standards that include the public workforce, the above injury rates show that it hasn’t been effective.  While private injury rates have continued to decrease over past couple of years, injury rates among public sector workers remain staggeringly objectionable.  

I realize that you could argue, the reason for the increase in injury rates among public sector workers is due to reporting procedures that are in effect for government workers, in that the public sector more accurately reports injuries.  Afterall GAO has recently reported; widespread underreporting of injuries among private sector employers.  That may well explain some of the gap, but make no mistake injury rates of 7.0 for local government workers versus 3.9 for private sector workers can’t be a simple case of underreporting!  Afterall local and state governments have been struggling with budget cuts for years. 

Budgets for safety and and other support services that aren’t viewed as mission critical have been cut to the bone.  This lack of appreciation of basic worker protection by some of our elected officials may well be the root cause for much of the increase in the rates.  You need not look any further than you local paper to realize this.  In my community the City Safety Manager has been quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying the city is spending $2 million dollars a year more in worker compensation costs than comparable sized cities.  That tells me that city officials haven’t been serious about injury prevention in the past.

Solis’s 2011 budget proposal increases OSHA funding a small amount in most areas, with the notable exception of Federal Compliance assistance.  A huge mistake in my opinion, in that OSHA is critically underfunded as it is now, Solis and Assistant Secretary Michaels should be fighting hard to legitimize OSHA, by calling for larger increases across the board, not joining in the chorus of cutting budgets.  Let Congress take your money away, don’t do it for them.  It’s Solis and Michaels’ job to educate those in Congress and the Administration of the critical importance safety plays in a healthy productive workforce.    

Bunker mentality has never assisted in economic recoveries in the past, nor will it aid us today.   Passage of new worker protection measures such as H.R. 2067 / S.1580, “Protecting America’s Workers Act,”  along with adequate funding measures should be heralded as a new serious effort to protect ALL workers and ultimately reduce the overall costs of healthcare, insurance, etc. 

Instead of embracing safety measures as a way to reduce costs, such as insurance premiums and direct healthcare costs, increase productivity and a way to effectively manage risk; safety has been allowed be used as a bargaining chip with the Labor movement, and has been rendered a “nuisance” all to often to many short sighted employers. 

It’s time to protect all workers and take safety out of the political arena and focus on the benefits of extending coverage to all American workers.

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