Both employers and workers tend to underreport workplace injuries in the US - the former not wanting to cough up compensation, the latter for fear of being disciplined, even losing their jobs.
A report released by the Government Accountability Office on Monday seemed to question the accuracy of nationwide data that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compiles each year.
Apart from the all too obvious compensation itself, employers had other reasons not to accurately report the injuries sustained by their workers. They could be hurting their chances of winning contracts if too many injuries are reported.
In the case of workers, apart from the fear of incurring the wrath of their managements, they also didn't like their co-workers to lose rewards, like bonuses or steak dinners, as part of safety-based incentive programs.
Worse, a third of occupational health professionals surveyed by the GAO said that they were pressured by employers to provide insufficient treatments to workers in order to hide or downplay work-related injuries or illness. More than two-thirds of health professionals observed worker fear for reporting an injury or illness, and 53 percent of practitioners said they were pressured by an employer to downplay an injury or illness so it is doesn't have to be reported on an official log.
The safety and health administration requires employers with more than 10 workers to record every work-related injury or illness that results in lost work time or medical treatment other than first aid. Some occupational health practitioners say that to avoid recording an injury, some employers will try to limit treatment for a serious injury to just first aid.
In other cases, the practitioners said, employers might seek alternative diagnoses if the initial diagnosis would result in a recordable injury or illness.
One manager took an injured worker to several medical providers until the manager found one who would certify that treatment required only first aid, thus making it an injury that did not have to be recorded, one practitioner told researchers, according to the report. Many employers fear that reporting numerous injuries will prompt a full-scale OSHA inspection.
The report was requested by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin and Patty Murray and U.S. Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey.
"The widespread underreporting so clearly documented in this report is undermining the health and safety of American workers," said Sen. Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "If we don't know the full extent of the workplace hazards workers face, we cannot fully address these risks. We need to take steps to require employers to provide a full account of on-the-job injuries and to protect workers so they can report workplace incidents without fear of retaliation."
"We cannot allow the lack of accurate information to permit hazardous working conditions to go unaddressed, putting workers' health and lives at risk," said Rep. Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "The GAO report underscores the need for OSHA to have all the tools they need to eliminate incentives that result in underreporting injuries."
Injury and illness records assist OSHA to better allocate its resources, accurately target its inspections and evaluate the success of efforts to improve the health and safety of American workers. Employers may underreport injury and illness rates because lower rates likely lead to fewer inspections, improves their competitiveness when bidding for new contracts, and lowers the employer's workers' compensation costs. Workers may also be discouraged from reporting injuries or illnesses because of prizes given by employers to groups of workers that report fewer injuries or illnesses.
"This report confirms that when it comes to the documenting of workplace injuries, we can't just take employers at their word. The system, to this point has been all too easy to game," said Sen. Murray, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety. "Government has the responsibility to be a stronger partner in ensuring that every worker who punches in for their next shift returns home safe and healthy at the end of the day. But to do that, we must have accurate information and that means more input from those on the factory floor and in the workplace. We need to ensure the inclusion and protection of victims and family members throughout the reporting process."
"GAO's survey results make clear that there is pressure on workers and health care providers to underreport and under-treat job-related injuries and illnesses," said Rep. Woolsey. "GAO's report underscores the need for Congress to enact provisions in the Protecting Americas Workers Act, which would prevent employers from implementing safety incentive programs that discourage accurate recordkeeping and reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses."
The GAO recommended that OSHA inspectors to interview workers during records audits, update the list of hazardous industries that are scrutinized, and provide employers with better education and training on recordkeeping requirements.
The Protecting Americas Workers Act, introduced by Harkin, Miller, Murray and Woolsey, would give OSHA additional tools to combat underreporting of injuries and illnesses by employers.