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Federal Study Points to Widespread Underreporting of Injuries on the Job

The report says 67 percent of occupational health practitioners reported observing workers who feared losing their job or disciplinary action for reporting an injury; 46 percent said this fear led workers to underreport injuries.

November 18, 2009
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Health and Wellness, Safety and Workplace Violence, Latest News
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A new government study adds to the growing body of evidence that employers and employees underreport workplace injuries and illnesses.

The report, released Monday, November 16, by the Government Accountability Office, appears to give credence to a yearlong federal program initiated October 1 that scrutinizes how certain employers keep records of workers hurt on the job.

Among the findings, the GAO found that employees often underreport injuries and illness for fear of losing their job or being disciplined. The report said 67 percent of occupational health practitioners reported observing workers who feared losing their job or disciplinary action for reporting an injury; 46 percent said this fear led workers to underreport injuries. Labor representatives criticized mandatory drug testing as another cause of underreporting, according to the GAO report.

The report said employer safety incentive programs, which offer bonuses to workers for creating safe work sites, can also lead employees to underreport injuries.

More than half the occupational health practitioners surveyed said they felt pressure from employers to play down injuries or illnesses, and nearly half—47 percent—felt similar pressure from employees.

The report was aimed chiefly at the inspection practices of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The GAO criticized OSHA for excluding certain dangerous industries, such as amusement parks and freight transportation in the coastal and Great Lakes regions, in its workplace inspections. OSHA did not always collect information about injuries from workers, which meant the agency relied solely on employer records while investigating a workplace incident.

The report gives political cover to the efforts started recently by OSHA to improve the accuracy of workplace injury and illness reports, said Brad Hammock, a partner at the Washington office of the law firm Jackson Lewis.

“The report bolsters the case that there is a real underreporting, under-recording problem,” said Hammock, who also writes the oshalawblog.com.

In a press release, OSHA itself agreed with the GAO’s criticism of the agency and cited the new program, the National Emphasis Program on Recordkeeping, as a solution.

“Many of the problems identified in the report are quite alarming, and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting,” Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a press release.

The yearlong program will give federal workplace inspectors more latitude in their inspections of employer work sites. According to Hammock, inspectors are required to review any relevant record located on or off a work site; re-create an OSHA log and compare it with the employer log; visit off-site medical clinics to review relevant medical records; and interview the designated record keeper, a sample of employees and medical providers. Inspectors will also be expected to walk around the work site to look for violations in plain view.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in early November that the number of nonfatal workplace injuries reported fell to 3.7 million last year from 4.2 million in 2008, but the GAO said that the data likely are incomplete.

In her statement responding to the GAO report, Solis said accurate reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses will help employers reduce the occurrence of injuries.

—Jeremy Smerd

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