OSHA Director on Safety Incentives: It’s Not About Pizza


In a recent online dialogue on What to do About Safety Incentives, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (OSHA) told more than 1,000 listeners why he considers the link between accurate injury tracking and appropriate workplace safety incentives to be of paramount importance.

In his remarks, he discussed the challenges the agency faces in identifying appropriate incentives and invited occupational health and safety professionals to submit comments and research on proven safety programs as well as incentives that fail to produce desired results. During the hour-long call, Dr. Michaels also discussed concerns about under-reporting, citing a Michigan State University (MSU) study on work-related amputations as an example. In the study, the Department of Labor recorded 160 official employer reports of traumatic amputations in 2007. MSU researchers counted an additional 251 amputations on workers’ compensation claims and 597 in emergency department records. The researchers concluded that official statistics based on employer reporting undercounted the true number of work-related amputations by 77 percent. (Of the 708 total amputations, 95 percent involved fingers; the leading cause was power saws). “We know we’re missing recordable injuries,” Dr. Michaels said. “The question is, why are we missing these injuries? What’s happening to them?”

In response, OSHA has launched a national emphasis program on record-keeping to assess the accuracy of injury and illness data recorded by employers. The project involves inspecting records prepared by businesses and enforcing regulatory requirements when employers are found to be under-recording injuries and illnesses.

Excerpts from the session sponsored by the American Society of Safety Engineers follow:
“OSHA encourages employers to have safety programs. Many of these programs include incentives and disincentives. We understand that. The difficulty we – and you – face is distinguishing between the programs that truly encourage safe work from the ones that discourage injury reporting.

“Effective safety programs rely on accurate injury reporting. Unfortunately, it appears there are some employers, particularly in high-hazard industries, that have implemented programs inadvertently, or by design, that discourage injury reporting. If accurate injury records are not compiled because workers believe they will not be required to report an injury, or supervisors fear they will lose their bonuses, or even their jobs, if workers report injuries, real safety is not being achieved.

“Depending on the environment, workers may fear being fired if they report an injury or they may feel pressured by co-workers not to report in order to avoid jeopardizing a group reward (such as a pizza party for an injury-free work week). The result is that certain employers appear to be safer. That may or may not be true, and it certainly puts other employers who don’t have safety incentive programs at a competitive disadvantage.

“Furthermore, nothing can be learned from the injury itself. That’s important because we know that much can be learned from injury investigations conducted by employers, workers, OSHA and safety professionals. Also, if an injury is not reported, the injured worker is denied access to workers’ compensation benefits he or she should rightfully receive. Inaccurate statistics also impact OSHA, misdirecting our inspections away from high-risk employers.

“Why do I think this is a major problem? There are a tremendous amount of injuries that OSHA is not aware of that are not being recorded in the rates that are collected by the Labor Department. Every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the injury rate in the U.S. goes down or remains relatively flat. At the same time, there are some indications in studies done by academic researchers that we are missing a significant portion of those injuries. The question is, how much are we actually missing?

“One thing we (recently) announced is a new initiative to move toward electronic injury and illness record-keeping and recording. Right now for most employers, our requirement is to fill out the OSHA log on paper and keep it in on hand in a top drawer. We don’t collect it. Many employers already do this electronically. We want to implement a system where employers will have to provide this information electronically. We may or may not require them to send it to us.

“I don’t know the answers. We are very much wrestling with these issues and we are looking for your help. We are committed to working with our stakeholders, especially safety and health professionals who are working in the field. We are eager to know more.”

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