As a result of a successful lawsuit brought by The New York Times, the public can now file Freedom of Information Act requests and find out lost workday injury and illness (LWDII) recorded rates for specific facilities. Until now, OSHA had declined to release the information, arguing that employers who submitted the rates should receive notice of the Freedom of Information Request before disclosure of the data. A U.S. District Court rejected this argument and required OSHA to release the rates.
Making use of this new access to LWDII rates, OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS requested and OSHA has supplied the information for all the plants in the steel industry (SIC 3312) from 1999 to 2001. OSHA describes establishments in this sector as manufacturers of hot metal, pig iron and silvery pig iron from iron ore and iron and steel scrap. More recent information is not available because OSHA is still using it in order to target its inspections at high-hazard facilities in its Site Specific Targeting (SST) program.
Underreporting still a problem
Increasing automation and safety improvements may account for the rise in facilities with a zero LWDII rate, but according to Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America, inaccurate recordkeeping also could be a factor. In an interview, Wright said that the underreporting of injuries and illnesses is a problem he "runs into every day and it afflicts even our best programs."
There also have been reports that fatalities in the steel industry rose sharply in 2004, raising additional questions about safety improvements in the sector.
It is not clear whether OSHA considers the steel industry to be a high-hazard sector, but in order to safeguard the reliability of recorded injuries, the agency now includes in its SST program hundreds of facilities with low LWDII rates in high-hazard industries. Such facilities face a greater likelihood of undergoing an OSHA inspection.
'We've made safety a first priority'
The data obtained from OSHA also reveal that:
- The highest rate for the period was 31.33729, recorded in 1999 at Michigan Rod Products Inc. of Howell, Mich.
- In 2000, Precision Rolled Products of Reno, Nev., had the highest rate, 26.35235.
- J & L Structural Inc. of Aliquippa, Pa., was highest in 2001, with an LWDII of 25.39271.
The attempt to reach J & L Structural for comment was unsuccessful because the telephone had been disconnected. J & L's rate of 20.77122 also was one of the highest in 2000.
Jerry Bendert, human resources manager for Michigan Rod, said his company's injuries had declined by 70 percent since 1999.
The environmental, health and safety manager at Precision Rolled Products, Janet Matthai, said rates at the company had dropped by 85 percent since 2000. "We have the commitment of management: They hired me in 2001 to do something about our high rates, we did a lot of training and we've made safety a first priority," she said.
Matthai, who has two degrees in safety, added that her predecessor was not a trained safety professional.