Barab Says Half of Workplaces Inspected Under OSHA Emphasis Program Underreport

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By Greg Hellman

About half of the workplaces inspected for recordkeeping violations under an Occupational Safety and Health Administration pilot national emphasis program have been found to be underreporting their numbers of injuries and illnesses, Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said Nov. 2.

The agency launched the emphasis program in 2009 to target workplaces it suspected of providing inaccurate reports of workers' injuries and illnesses. The next year, the program was temporarily suspended so the targeting criteria could be readjusted after inspectors failed to find the significant violations it expected to uncover. After retooling the program, OSHA uncovered a higher rate of violations (41 OSHR 75, 1/27/11).

“There was some pretty serious discussion that led to some pretty serious questions about the accuracy of injury and illness recording,” Barab said Nov. 2 at the American Public Health Association's annual conference. “It's been a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.”

OSHA has inspected approximately 350 workplaces nationwide under the emphasis program, he said. The agency does not plan to open any more investigations, and has not announced a timeline for completing the existing probes.

VPP Policies Scrutinized

OSHA has also increased its scrutiny of incentive programs within its Voluntary Protection Programs and identified its first case that does not comply with VPP's requirements, Barab said.

In June, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, issued a memorandum directing OSHA to examine the incentive programs of new VPP applicants before they are accepted to ensure they do not, in fact, discourage reporting. In addition, participants applying for re-approval to VPP will have 90 days to revise incentive programs that do not comply.

Concerns have been raised that employer incentive programs do the opposite of their stated intention by rewarding employees solely for not reporting injuries and illnesses rather than actually improving safety in the workplace.

Acceptance of One Applicant Delayed

OSHA has delayed acceptance of one VPP applicant until it eliminates its incentive program altogether, Barab added. He declined to identify the company or describe its programs.

Meanwhile, in its national emphasis program, approximately one-third of the workplaces inspected had incentive programs, and “a lot of the incentive programs are bad ones,” Barab said.

As part of the emphasis program, OSHA has sought to crack down on employers who use incentive programs to discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. Examples of “good” incentive programs include those that encourage employees to report hazards so they can be addressed proactively, the agency has said.

Steelworkers Survey Workplaces

Jim Frederick, assistant director of the department of health and safety for the United Steelworkers, estimated “at least 90 percent of USW workplace OSHA recordkeeping may be affected by injury underreporting.”

The root causes of poor recordkeeping, Frederick said, include:

• a focus on injury rates,

• the drive to reduce workers' compensation and health care costs, and

• a lack of focus on more important metrics, such as training, hazard reporting, and near-miss reporting.

“When injuries, illnesses, near-misses and hazards are not reported, they are not investigated and they are not corrected,” he said.

In response, the union has worked to insert language in collective bargaining agreements prohibiting policies that discourage injury and illness reporting, filed complaints with regulators such as OSHA, and performed “diligent oversight” of recordkeeping logs, Frederick added.

Nancy Lessin, an official from the USW's Tony Mazzocchi Center for Safety, Health and Environmental Education, criticized the use of “behavior-based safety programs,” which she said inappropriately blame workers for accidents rather than focusing on hazards.