‘Lies, damn lies and statistics’

Congress wants the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step up enforcement of record-keeping rules to prevent employers from underreporting job-related illnesses and injuries.

Last year, the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee heard testimony that OSHA “may be counting and reporting as few as one-third of workplace injuries and illnesses,” the AFL-CIO’s Mike Hall wrote on the labor federation’s Internet website.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles and publishes annual illness, injury and death figures.

“Top officials at the Department of Labor (DOL) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) often cite declining injury, illness and fatality numbers to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs and to fight off criticism that OSHA has abandoned its original mission of setting and enforcing workplace safety and health standards,” says HIDDEN TRAGEDY: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses, a 2008 House Labor and Education Committee majority staff report. “But extensive evidence from academic studies, media reports and worker testimony shows that work-related injuries and illnesses in the United States are chronically and even grossly underreported.”

Hall says the BLS numbers are seriously flawed because they come from one source – employers.

He points to a Michigan State University study, published in the April, 2006, edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The study found that BLS figures covering several years in Michigan captured just 31 percent of the injuries and 33 percent of the illnesses reported in other databases that included more than just the employer-provided information upon which the BLS relies.

Hall says a similar study published in 2008 examined figures from Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The BLS numbers in those states didn’t report 25-50 percent of workplace injuries and illnesses, he adds.

He also points to the 2009 edition of the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect. “Under the Bush administration, officials at OSHA largely ignored the issue of underreporting, continuing to rely on employer reports of workplace injuries as evidence that policies were working, despite overwhelming evidence that this information is unreliable. Moreover, there were no efforts or initiatives to enhance enforcement on OSHA injury and illness recordkeeping requirements,” the 18th annual report says.

Death on the Job also says that in 2007, the last year for which job fatality statistics are available, 5,657 workers lost their lives at work from traumatic injuries. “While this is a decline in worker deaths from 2006, when 5,840 fatal injuries were reported, on average 15 workers die every day because of job injuries.

“In 2007, more than 4 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported by employers, but due to limitations in the injury reporting system and underreporting of workplace injuries, this number understates the problem. The true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater or 8 to 12 million injuries and illnesses.”

The Labor and Education Committee report also says “As much as 69 percent of injuries and illnesses may never make it into the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), the nation’s annual workplace safety and health ‘report card’ generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).”

The report adds, “If these estimates are accurate, the nation’s workers may be suffering three times as many injuries and illnesses as official reports indicate. Despite these reports, OSHA has failed to address the problem, relying on ineffective audits to argue that the numbers are accurate.”

In addition, the report says, “a major cause of underreporting, according to experts, is OSHA’s reliance on self-reporting by employers [who]…have strong incentives to underreport injuries and illnesses that occur on the job. Businesses with fewer injuries and illnesses are less likely to be inspected by OSHA; they have lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums; and they have a better chance of winning government contracts and bonuses.”

Further, the report says self-reporting permits “employers to use a variety of strategies that result in underreporting of injuries and illnesses: Workers report widespread intimidation and harassment when reporting injuries and illnesses. Reports, testimony and news accounts show that many employers have fired or disciplined workers who report injuries and illnesses or complain about safety hazards. Others have added ‘demerits’ to an employee’s record for reportable injuries or illnesses or for absenteeism that allegedly result from ‘safety violations.’”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney questions BLS figures that show shrinking illness, injury and death rates in American workplaces on President George W. Bush’s watch. In a posting on the AFL-CIO’s website, he said the Bush administration proved unwilling “to protect and safeguard America’s working men and women, adding, “Fortunately, America has a new Secretary of Labor who is committed to putting the needs of working families at the forefront of her agenda.”

Meanwhile, part of the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which Congress recently approved, orders OSHA, which is under the Department of Labor, to start “a recordkeeping enforcement initiative on injury and illness reporting, addressing the apparent lack of completeness of the OSHA Log of Work-related Injuries and Illnesses.”

The bill gives extra money to OSHA and the BLS for the initiative. It also requires OSHA to report to Congress on the new recordkeeping enforcement initiative in June.

Besides Sweeney, many union leaders and rank-and-file members are skeptical of the BLS numbers. They include Steelworker Jeff Wiggins, president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO. Wiggins, who is also on the Kentucky State AFL-CIO Executive Board, said the numbers remind him of a famous Mark Twain quote: “There are three kinds of lies — lies, damn lies and statistics.”

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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One Response to ‘Lies, damn lies and statistics’

  1. David says:

    Like the old organizing song says, “We just came to work here / We didn’t come to DIE.”