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OSHA Wants to Get Real (As In Real Time) With Injury and Illness Data

Nov. 7, 2013
While individual companies’ sharing of injury and illness data in real time, a concept that was promoted by then-CEO Paul O’Neill when he was at Alcoa, isn’t a reality yet, OSHA is nudging business in that direction with a new proposed rule related to electronic reporting of injury and illness data.

You know that dream, where you’re somewhere in public and you suddenly realize you’re only half-dressed or even naked? A new proposal from OSHA outlined on a call with Dr. David Michaels today might have a lot of companies feeling that way.

OSHA is proposing a new rule, “Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses,” which will amend its current recordkeeping regulations to require the nation’s 38,000 establishments with more than 250 employees (and that already are required to keep records) to electronically submit the records on a quarterly basis to OSHA. The 440,000 U.S. companies with more than 20 employees but fewer than 250 that are in certain industries with high injury and illness rates will be required to electronically submit their summary of work-related injuries and illnesses to OSHA once a year.

According to Michaels, “The proposal does not add any new requirement to keep records; it only modifies an employer’s obligation to transmit these records to OSHA.”

Since employers already are required to keep this data, what’s the big deal? Here’s the rub: OSHA plans to eventually post the data online. The agency believes that timely, establishment-specific injury and illness data will help it target its compliance assistance and enforcement resources more effectively by identifying workplaces where workers are at greater risk.

Michaels claimed the data the agency receives from employers under the proposed rule will not be used for enforcement purposes. However, he admitted that the agency, along with its state partners, only has enough compliance officers to inspect companies – on average – once every 100 years.

Amanda Wood, director of Labor and Employment Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), said in an interview with EHS Today that public disclosure of injury and illness rates by company name won’t “further the end game to achieve safer workplaces.”

OSHA already has tools in place to improve workplace safety, added Wood – tools such as current injury and illness reporting requirements, the ability to inspect workplaces and the ability to work with employers on a consultative basis.

“These tools are present and they’re working,” she said. “Disclosing [specific injury and illness data] could lead to unfair characterizations of businesses by people who just see a statistic and don’t know the circumstances behind it."

“It’s about reputation,” added Matt Lavoie, senior director of media relations for NAM. “Reputation is currency for a company and it truly does matter and you can’t get an accurate picture from some numbers on a page.”

“Manufacturers have a No. 1 goal of safe workplaces and we want to work with OSHA in a collaborative manner,” said Wood. “We need best practices, not additional regulations, at this time.”

Michaels believes the new proposed reporting requirements will improve workplace safety: “Much of the [injury and illness] data never leaves the workplace, and we want to change that,” he said, adding the data will help the agency “better target” establishments with high injury rates and high rates of specific injuries, while allowing for “fewer inspections at employers with low rates of serious injuries.”

The announcement follows the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ release of its annual Occupational Injuries and Illnesses report, which estimates that 3 million workers were injured on the job in 2012.

“In some industries, one in 20 workers is injured. That should not be acceptable in the United States today,” said Michaels. “Three million injuries are 3 million too many. With the changes being proposed in this rule, employers, employees, the government and researchers will have better access to data that will encourage earlier abatement of hazards and result in improved programs to reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities.”

O'Neill Touts Real-Time Reporting

Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill joined Michaels on the call, noting that the proposed rule is a “great initiative,” and calling it a “first step but not the final step.”

“I hope it won’t be too long until we suggest to employers that they post their injuries in real time, so that we can speed up learning,” said O’Neill. He instituted a policy at Alcoa, which still is followed today, that required the company’s 343 locations to report injuries to Alcoa’s web site within 24 hours of the occurrence for the entire world to see.  

[As of Thursday, Nov. 07, at 20:00 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), Alcoa's lost workday (days away) rate for 2013 stood at 0.083, and the 2013 DART (days away plus restricted and job transfer) rate stands at 0.341. Alcoa calculates and publishes these rates in real time. Each represents the number of injuries and illnesses cases per 100 full-time workers.]

O’Neill’s latest crusade is reducing the injuries and illnesses experienced by health care workers. He noted that health and medical care have the highest workplace injury and illness rates, with nearly 7 in 100 workers reporting a recordable injury.

O’Neill said he thinks the availability of transparent data will help stakeholders such as employers, industry groups and OSHA know where to target their injury and illness reduction efforts to achieve the safest possible workplaces.

A Competitive Advantage

According to Michaels, online access to the reporting data will allow companies to benchmark against others in their industries and against companies considered “world-class” in other industries. The database also will allow companies seeking contractors to compare and contrast injury and illness rates among those bidding for contracts, and allow companies that are bidding for contracts to have bragging rights if their injury and illness rates are lower than competitors.

Transparent access to the date also allows workers looking for jobs to compare the safety data for potential employers, allowing some companies with low injury and illness rates to become “employers of choice” in their industries, said Michaels.

When asked by EHS Today if he thought the availability of the new data will help when organizations are reviewing EHS performance as part of overall sustainability reporting, Michaels answered in the affirmative, stating, “The basic idea is that widely recognized practices [good or bad] will lead to better public citizens.”

He added that he hopes the posting of injury and illness data will “nudge” more employers into finding and fixing safety and health hazards before injuries occur.

The public will have 90 days, through Feb. 6, 2014, to submit written comments on the proposed rule. On Jan. 9, 2014, OSHA will hold a public meeting on the proposed rule in Washington, D.C.

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