Companies Continue to Underreport Injuries, Illnesses

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Since 2006, academic and government studies have suggested that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) misses a certain percentage of injuries or illness sustained by the U.S. workforce because organizations do not report them. In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that workplaces were underreporting workplace illnesses and injuries significantly. In 2006, Michigan State University found that employers’ OSHA logs captured only 31 percent of illnesses and 33 percent of injuries that are reported in other databases. University researchers found that up to 68 percent of work-related injuries and illnesses occurring in Michigan were not accounted for in 1999 through 2001. 
But certain industries might be failing to report illnesses and injuries at even higher rates than those cited in the Michigan and GAO studies, according to a National Emphasis Program launched by OSHA in 2009. The program found that almost half of workplaces inspected for OSHA recordkeeping violations underreported their number of employee injuries or illness. The program targeted high-hazard industries with the highest “days away, restrictions and transfer” rates (DART) and those suspected of providing inaccurate records of employee injuries or illnesses.
The results were reported by Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, in a November 2011 presentation to an industry conference.
While companies are not required to submit their annual logs of illness and injuries to OSHA unless the agency requests them, OSHA will fine companies it finds to have pervasive record-keeping problems. In 2010, OSHA cited Goodman Manufacturing Co., a Houston-based maker of cooling and heating products, for 83 willful violations for failing to record, and recording improperly, work-related injuries and illnesses. The proposed OSHA fines for the underreporting totaled $1.2 million.
Causes of Underreporting 
A number of theories exist on why worker injuries and illnesses go unreported. Some human resource executives say a lack of understanding about what needs to be reported on OSHA’s 300 log is a significant contributor to the problem.
“I think one of the top causes is not understanding recordkeeping requirements,” said Anita Orozco, director of HR for Sonneborn Inc., a maker of refined products in Petrolia, Pa. “In some cases what needs to be reported to OSHA is clear cut, but in other cases it can get pretty gray.”
In one example of the latter scenario at Sonneborn, an employee with an underlying health condition passed out at work, and given the pre-existing issue there was some question whether it was an OSHA-recordable event. After querying an OSHA representative, Orozco found that it should be reported, but for a surprising reason.
“In the process of passing out, the employee hit his head on a workstation and then hit the floor,” Orozco said. “Had he just hit the floor after passing out, it turns out it would not need to have been reported.”
Terry Petko, director of HR and environmental health and safety for Pacific Wood Preserving Companies in Bakersfield, Calif., said one common area of confusion is defining what constitutes first aid under recordkeeping rules. “There is some splitting of hairs in that area,” Petko said. “If employees get a cut, it is wrapped and bandaged and a doctor then releases them for work, it’s not recordable. But if they receive one or two stitches for the same cut, it becomes recordable.”
Edwin Foulke Jr., a partner with the law firm Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta and a former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, concedes that even he finds himself challenged on occasion by “to record or not to record” decisions. “Many of the decisions are automatic, but there are a number of questions I receive from my clients about whether to report that require a lot of analysis before making decisions,” Foulke said.
Is Overreporting an Issue?
The flip side of the underreporting issue is a tendency by some HR personnel—given uncertainty as to whether certain injuries or illnesses should be recorded—to err on the side of caution and report too much.
“In the recordkeeping audits I do for clients, I’ve found as much overreporting as underreporting, and technically both are violations,” said Foulke. “Companies do miss things, but at the same time there are things put on logs that shouldn’t be there.”
For example, filling out a “first report of injury” form on employees doesn’t necessarily mean that the injury needs to be recorded on an OSHA 300 log, Foulke said.
“In many cases it is recordable, but there also are cases when that employee doesn’t have any lost time, restricted work or medical treatment,” he said. “People often fill out the form and report injuries as a precaution without looking at those factors closely, mainly to ensure they’re covered under requirements of their workers’ comp insurers.”
Incentive Programs as a Driver
There’s also a belief that safety incentive programs that promise employees rewards for periods without work-related injuries or illness can discourage reporting. Experts say these programs, while often well-intentioned, can incent people not to report on-the-job injuries in order to earn bonuses or prizes.
“Companies using these incentives often think they’re doing the right thing by rewarding people for safe behavior,” said Dawn Haag-Hatterer, CEO of Consulting Authority, a Frederick, Md.-based company that provides HR advisory services. “The problem is that many employees, especially in this tough economy, look at the programs as being able to get some extra money in the form of bonuses at the end of a quarter by being safe. And in many of their minds, they are ‘safe’ if they don’t report injuries they’ve sustained on the job.”
Incenting such behaviors can create bigger problems for companies, Haag-Hatterer said. “Maybe a health care worker gets stuck with a needle that unbeknownst to them turns out to be contaminated and three to six months later ends up with a serious health issue, but the incident was never reported,” she said. “Now the company is faced not only with a workers’ comp issue but a general liability issue” from that injury.
Orozco said that how a safety incentive program is designed and communicated can affect underreporting. “If you’re giving significant prizes or dollars for reactive items, like not getting injured or ill, employees may not want to report because they want the reward,” she said. Such incentives create ample peer pressure, because employees might not want to let co-workers down by reporting injuries that could affect team-based safety bonuses.
Haag-Hatterer said that part of the underreporting issue can be attributed to employers who are playing the inspection odds. “There are millions of businesses but not millions of OSHA inspectors, and some companies simply bet that OSHA will never come to inspect them,” she said. Only the threat of large financial penalties for nonreporting will get their attention, she added.
Training and Culture
Beyond the effect of incentive programs, some HR leaders say that underreporting can be reduced through improved staff training and better use of OSHA educational resources that offer guidance on injury and illness reporting.
“Individuals who understand and can navigate the OSHA website can essentially find whatever guidance they need” to help clarify recordkeeping requirements, Orozco said.
Others say the best antidote for underreporting is a workplace culture where line leaders from senior executives to front-line supervisors walk the talk of encouraging employees to stay safe and report any work-related injuries.
Once employees see managers at those levels taking injury reporting seriously, it becomes more important to them as well,” Petko said. “Then safety incentive programs have more merit, because employees aren’t reading any veiled messages into them.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis. Click here to read more.