Whitmore: OSHA Turns Blind Eye to Underreporting

March 4, 2008
An OSHA recordkeeping expert alleges the agency has been “turning its back” on verifying the accuracy of injury and illness records submitted by employers, and claims this has led to significant underreporting during the past 15 years.

Bob Whitmore, a Department of Labor expert for OSHA recordkeeping litigation since the mid-1980s, spoke with EHS Today but emphasized he was not speaking on the agency’s behalf. He stated he felt compelled to speak out because “he cares about workers getting abused” and wants to hold anyone contributing to this “accountable.”

Whitmore claimed that several companies in the steel mill, shipyard and poultry processing industries – hazardous workplaces by nature – have vastly underreported their injury and illness rates. He recalled that an AK steel mill in Kentucky submitted an OSHA 300 log in 2005 without one recordable injury, “not even one medical treatment case” for the entire year. As recently as Feb. 20 this year, a worker was fatally injured at an AK Steel plant in Ohio.

The incredulous part about this, Whitmore said, is that OSHA is not doing anything about it.

“It makes absolutely no sense,” he said. “If you work in hazardous industries, see a lot fatalities, but you hardly have recordable cases, it doesn’t ring true.”

Employers Abuse Recordkeeping System

Ever since the Bureau of Labor Statistics relinquished its recordkeeping group to OSHA during President George H.W. Bush’s administration in 1990, the agency has used injury and illness logs, which employers are required to submit annually, as a national surveillance tool. The logs are intended to help OSHA know what's happening in U.S. workplaces in order to direct resources to the places that need help.

OSHA’s site-specific targeting program, for instance, uses the data to target inspections at facilities with high injury and illness rates. The problem, Whitmore says, is that these numbers are self-reported rates, which gives employers an incentive to keep the numbers as low as possible.

“When someone is sending in a DAFWII [days away from work injury and illness] rate of 9.0 or higher, one of two things is happening: either [employers] are dumb as dirt and don’t understand how the OSHA targeting system works or they don’t care about the numbers and don't use them as a report card,” he said.

As a result, there isn’t a clear picture of which employers are violating health and safety rules, Whitmore explained. If an employer reports a rate of 15.0, for example, Whitmore contended that “granted, they may need our help in decreasing their rate, but you may be finding the best and most honest recordkeeping system there. This way, it’s hard to tell what’s real.”

Whitmore claimed it wasn’t always like this. He recalled that for the first time since OSHA's inception in 1972, the agency looked closely at companies' injury and illness logs and issued large fines to businesses that underreported such incidents during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The system worked well until industry and other groups criticized the agency for focusing too much on “paperwork violations.” Additionally, the ever-decreasing numbers worked well for OSHA, added Whitmore. Lower injury and illness rates made everyone happier, as the “falling rates were and are used as proof that the enforcement vs. cooperative program approach is a success.”

Whitmore, however, said he knows too well that the numbers are false. “Turn your backs and injuries and illnesses will continue to fall. The question is how low can you go?”

Four years ago, OSHA attempted a new tactic by including in its SST program 400 employers that worked in “historically high rate industries” and demonstrated exceptionally low rates. Whitmore said that it was first step in the right direction, but it was short-lived. For the first year, OSHA only was able to look at 39 out of the 400 employers, and the following year, reduced the number of companies to 200. That number has been dwindling ever since.

“Bottom line is that you have to look at the employers that give you the low rates. If you are going to use the [recordkeeping] numbers as ‘objective measures,’ give me a 50-50 split. Instead of sending 14,000 employers letters that state they are going to be getting a visit from OSHA, I’d like to see 7,000 of them be the ones with the high rates and the other half with the low rates,” Whitmore explained.

Why? “Because if the low rates are real, you've found an industry leader to partner with, and if they aren’t, you drop the hammer on them.”

OSHA: Whitmore Has No Experience Analyzing Data

When EHS Today contacted OSHA for a response to Whitmore’s claims, the agency disregarded the allegations, saying in an e-mail that Whitmore’s point of view is only “an opinion that is neither based on nor supported by any sound analysis of relevant data.”

OSHA went on to say that Whitmore has never had any experience analyzing data and that his job was just to interpret the requirements of OSHA’s rule on Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (29 CFR Part 1904).

The agency also acknowledged that stakeholders influenced OSHA’s decision to change its recordkeeping policies in the early 1990s in order to “allow employers to immediately abate minor paperwork violations without citation.”

“This included failure to post the OSHA poster, failure to properly post the recordkeeping log summary and minor technical errors discovered during review of the log. This has had a significant impact on the number of recordkeeping violations cited,” the agency said. OSHA also explained that it conducts regular, systematic audits of employer injury and illness records to ensure that employers complete their logs accurately.

“While the audits find some instances of both over-reporting and under-reporting, they show that over 90 percent of employers complete OSHA records accurately,” OSHA said.

Whitmore Calls for Accountability

In July 2007, Whitmore was placed on administrative leave after an argument with his supervisor resulted, he said, in the supervisor spitting on him. He went on to state that many OSHA managers wanted to see him leave because of his outspokenness about the agency’s recordkeeping policies and other issues.

As of right now, it isn’t clear when Whitmore is due back at the agency, and OSHA will not comment on personnel actions. Although Whitmore’s job is in limbo, he says that he will continue to fight for workers’ rights. He urges OSHA to post all of its injury and illness data since 1995 on its Web site for public view.

“I care about workers getting abused and holding people accountable to that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are company managers or OSHA executives, if you are taking part in abusing these workers, you should be held accountable.”

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