Senators Call for GAO Report on OSHAs Injury and Illness Auditing

In an April 22 letter, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate whether OSHA effectively ensures that employers are providing accurate workplace injury and illness reports.

The senators expressed concern that underreporting injury and illness rates has become more prevalent in recent years, and that OSHA’s effort to monitor the accuracy of these reports significantly has diminished. If injuries and illnesses go underreported, OSHA cannot protect workers from workplace hazards, the senators said.

"When it comes to the health and safety of American workers, we can't allow OSHA to just take employers at their word," said Murray, who chairs the Senate's workplace safety subcommittee. "We need an agency that takes the initiative to keep businesses honest about the dangers their workers face."

The legislators aren’t alone in questioning OSHA's efforts to adequately verify these reported injury and illness rates. In a March 2008 interview with Occupational Hazards, Bob Whitmore, a Department of Labor expert for OSHA recordkeeping litigation since the mid-1980s, claimed the agency has turned a blind eye to underreporting from companies in high-hazard industries. These companies, he said, submitted OSHA 300 logs with very low recordable injury and illness rates.

In addition, a six-part series from The Charlotte Observer on worker safety in the poultry industry pointed out that House of Raeford Farms, a North Carolina-based poultry company, covered up the extent of injuries inside its plants. The Observer claimed it obtained injury logs for four House of Raeford plants and found the company failed to record at least a dozen injuries.

Lastly, in testimony before Murray's subcommittee last April, Dr. David Michaels, a professor of occupational health at George Washington University, said that two-thirds of injuries and illnesses are missed under current reporting methods.

OSHA uses the employer-provided illness and injury information to determine which companies to inspect, a process some safety advocates say creates an incentive for underreporting. For this reason, Sens. Murray and Kennedy said OSHA must be more proactive in regulating industries and verifying injury and illness report claims.

Legislators asked GAO to:

  • Evaluate OSHA's efforts to ensure that employers are properly recording injuries and illnesses;
  • Assess the trends in the number and types of OSHA recordkeeping audits and targeted;
  • Provide information on available studies or research on the extent to which employers underreport injuries and illnesses;
  • Conduct a survey of occupational physicians in professional associations such as the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which has expressed concerns about employer underreporting; and
  • Provide suggestions on how to improve OSHA's efforts.

"I want the GAO to take a good hard look at injury and illness reporting because frankly, it's a system that seems all too easy to game," Murray said.

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