With Proposed Reporting Rule, OSHA Aims to Leverage Technology for Good

Nov. 13, 2013
Thanks to technology, we live in a world of immediate gratification, instant access and real-time communication.

For those of us who are "chronologically gifted" (as Dr. John Howard so eloquently put it .. and I'm starting to include myself in that category), it's easy to step back and see how technology has changed our day-to-day lives. For kids today – who seem to be clutching a smartphone from the time they're in the womb – it's probably not so easy.

Thanks to technology, we live in a world of immediate gratification, instant access and real-time communication.

For those of us who are “chronologically gifted” (as Dr. John Howard so eloquently put it … and I’m starting to include myself in that category), it’s easy to step back and see how technology has changed our day-to-day lives. OK, I’m not that old. But I can remember:

  • How often – and how badly – I would get lost when trying to find a destination in the pre-GPS era.
  • Calling my friends on a rotary-dial telephone to 
ascertain if they could come out and play.
  • Writing school reports on an electric typewriter and, 
later, on a Compaq computer that ran on MS-DOS 
and must have weighed 600 pounds.
  • Listening to records ... then eight tracks ... then cassettes ... then CDs. (And yes, I realize that vinyl 
is making a comeback.)
  • Lincoln logs, tinker toys and erector sets.

I’m waxing nostalgic here, but at the same time, I’m not complaining. Technology has made our lives easier and better, in many ways. But as far as leveraging technology for the greater good, there still are many untapped opportunities. Real-time injury reporting and tracking is one of them.

OSHA recently unveiled a proposed rule that would require businesses with more than 250 employees to electronically submit their injury and illness data to the agency on a quarterly basis. Smaller businesses in industries with high injury and illness rates would be required to submit their data on an annual basis.

OSHA plans to eventually post the data on its website.

“Timely, establishment-specific injury and illness data will help OSHA target its compliance-assistance and enforcement resources more effectively by identifying workplaces where workers are at greater risk, and enable employers to compare their injury rates with others in the same industry,” the agency said in a news release.

It’s appropriate that former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill was the conference call to help OSHA introduce the proposed rule to the media. O’Neill spearheaded the creation of a companywide injury-reporting system that still is in place at Alcoa today (it’s accessible to the public on Alcoa’s website). O’Neill also believes that our hospitals would benefit greatly from the development of a nationwide real-time safety-data system, in much the same way that Alcoa’s safety culture blossomed after the company developed one early in his tenure.

Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have signaled that they will oppose the rule, claiming that a publicly accessible database of company-specific injury and illness statistics would provide fodder for “outside groups” to take potshots at businesses for having poor safety records. As a spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers told EHS Today: Posting injury and illness data online “could lead to unfair characterizations of businesses by people who just see a statistic and don’t know the circumstances behind it.”

That’s a valid argument, to a point. When a workplace fatality is the result of a heart attack or an act of God, the data doesn’t tell the whole story. But what about when an injury or fatality is the result of lax safety policies and procedures, half-hearted training or incompetent leadership? I’m guessing there are more than a few companies that not only would prefer to keep their safety records out of public view but also the “circumstances” behind their high injury and illness rates.

I applaud OSHA for proposing this rule. Yes, there will be pushback from some business groups, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy. EHS professionals should know this better than anyone.

This proposal is about the power of transparency, and leveraging our modern data and communication capabilities for the greater good. When the goal is saving lives and keeping people safe and healthy, we should use every tool at our disposal.

As Oscar Goldman said in “The Six Million Dollar Man” (one of my favorite shows as a kid): “We have the technology.” We owe it to the 4,383 workers who died on the job last year to see how it could help make workplaces safer.

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