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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Nov 17, 2009, 9:24 am

Your Boss Swears Your Job is Perfectly Safe

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

We're accustomed to reading statistics from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about workplace injuries. Every year, for instance, there are 4 million work-related injuries.

But ever wonder where OSHA gets those numbers?

According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Labor and OSHA may not be doing enough to make sure these numbers reflect reality. For one thing, inspectors don't always talk to the workers they're supposed to be protecting.

OSHA gets its information about workplace accidents and injuries from employers. Employers have incentives to downplay injuries on their job sites. A high injury rate makes a company look bad. Reporting too many injuries could open the door to a lawsuit or an investigation. (See below for a new video from Brave New Foundation on the fatal effects of lax enforcement of OSHA regulations.)

Most people are honest, but realistically, there will always be a certain number of bad actors who game the system and slackers who only make a half-assed effort. The bias is toward underreporting: cheaters could be artificially driving down injury statistics or the whole country.

To help keep employers honest, OSHA audits about 250 of the 130,000 high-hazard worksites that it monitors. The auditors check to make sure that the auditee's reports to the government square with the companies' internal records. But those audits won't catch employers who don't record injuries in the first place. Maybe workers aren't telling their bosses about incidents because they're afraid of being penalized. Or maybe they are telling management and management isn't writing it down.

GAO found that OSHA doesn't routinely interview workers. This is partly because there is a two-year lag between the audit period and the time the inspectors show up. By that point, workers may not remember, or they may no longer be working at the same job.

The report recommends that OSHA routinely interview workers about safety and minimize the lag between the time an incident is reported and the time OSHA inspectors show up.

The recommendations section doesn't specifically address what OSHA should do to make random audits more effective. All the advice is geared toward investigating incidents that have been reported. You'd think that they'd be at least as worried about employers that haven't reported injuries.

And here's "16 Deaths Per Day," the new five-minute video from Brave New Foundation about the weak laws protecting U.S. workers from on-the-job injuries—and death:

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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