Your Boss Swears Your Job is Perfectly Safe

Lindsay Beyerstein November 17, 2009

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​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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