GAO was asked to determine if the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) verifies that employers accurately are recording workers' injuries and illnesses and what factors may affect the accuracy of employers' injury and illness records. GAO analyzed OSHA's audits of employers' injury and illness records, interviewed inspectors who conducted the audits, surveyed occupational safety and health practitioners and obtained the views of various stakeholders regarding factors that may affect the accuracy of the data.
GAO found that DOL verifies some of the workplace injury and illness data it collects from employers through OSHA's audits of employers' records, but contends that “these efforts may not be adequate,” leaving room for workers to be intimidated by employers into not reporting injuries and illnesses, and for employers to pressure healthcare providers into providing inadequate treatment so that the injuries and illnesses do not have to be reported to OSHA.
“Accurate injury and illness records are vital to protect workers' health and safety,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “They not only enable OSHA to better target its resources and determine the effectiveness of its efforts, accurate numbers are also an important tool that workers and employers can use to identify hazards in their workplaces.”
According to the report, “OSHA overlooks information from workers about injuries and illnesses because it does not routinely interview them as part of its records audits. OSHA annually audits the records of a representative sample of about 250 of the approximately 130,000 worksites in the high hazard industries it surveys to verify the accuracy of the data on injuries and illnesses recorded by employers.”
OSHA does not always require inspectors to interview workers about injuries and illnesses – the only source of data not provided by employers – which could assist the agency in evaluating the accuracy of the records, according to GAO. In addition, some OSHA inspectors reported they rarely learn about injuries and illnesses from workers since the records audits are conducted about 2 years after incidents are recorded. Moreover, many workers are no longer employed at the worksite and therefore cannot be interviewed.
GAO determined OSHA also does not review the accuracy of injury and illness records for worksites in eight high hazard industries because it has not updated the industry codes used to identify these industries since 2002. OSHA officials told GAO they have not updated the industry codes “because it would require a regulatory change that is not currently an agency priority.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also collects data on work-related injuries and illnesses recorded by employers through its annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), but it does not verify the accuracy of the data. Although BLS is not required to verify the accuracy of the SOII data, it has recognized several limitations in the data, such as its limited scope, and has taken or is planning several actions to improve the quality and completeness of the SOII.
According to stakeholders interviewed and the occupational health practitioners GAO surveyed, many factors affect the accuracy of employers' injury and illness data, including disincentives that may discourage workers from reporting work-related injuries and illnesses to their employers and disincentives that may discourage employers from recording them. For example, workers may not report a work-related injury or illness because they fear job loss or other disciplinary action, or fear they will jeopardize rewards based on having low injury and illness rates. In addition, employers may not record injuries or illnesses because they are afraid of increasing their workers’ compensation costs or jeopardizing their chances of winning contract bids for new work.
GAO also found that disincentives for reporting and recording injuries and illnesses can result in pressure on occupational health practitioners from employers or workers to provide insufficient medical treatment that avoids the need to record the injury or illness. From its survey of U.S. health practitioners, GAO found that over one-third of them had been subjected to such pressure.
In addition, stakeholders and the survey results indicated that other factors may affect the accuracy of employers' injury and illness data, including a lack of understanding of OSHA's recordkeeping requirements by individuals responsible for recording injuries and illnesses.
Acting Assistant Secretary for OSHA Jordan Barab announced that the agency plans to move swiftly to implement the recommendations made by the GAO. These recommendations include:
- To improve OSHA’s efforts to verify the accuracy of employer-provided injury and illness data, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for OSHA to require inspectors to interview workers during the records audits to obtain information on injuries or illnesses and substitute other workers when those initially selected for interviews are not available.
- To improve OSHA’s efforts to verify the accuracy of employer-provided injury and illness data, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for OSHA to minimize the amount of time between the date injuries and illnesses are recorded by employers and the date they are audited by OSHA.
- To improve OSHA’s efforts to verify the accuracy of employer-provided injury and illness data, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for OSHA to update the list of high hazard industries used to select worksites for records audits and target inspections, outreach, and technical assistance.
- To improve the accuracy of the data recorded by employers on workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for OSHA to increase education and training provided to employers to help them determine which injuries and illnesses should be recorded under the recordkeeping standards, such as providing assistance to employers via the online tool that OSHA is considering.
In response to numerous studies of under-reporting and congressional interest, on Oct. 1, OSHA implemented a National Emphasis Program on Recordkeeping. OSHA will send inspectors into worksites across the country to review the occupational injury and illness records prepared by businesses.
“Many of the problems identified in the report are quite alarming, and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting,” Solis said.