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Proposed OSHA mandate to publicly post worker injury data riles industry

Posted On: Jul. 6, 2014 12:00 AM CST

Risk managers and safety experts are concerned a rule proposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandating that workplace injuries be reported electronically and then posted online by OSHA would make companies less likely to keep accurate safety data.

While OSHA thinks the reporting requirement would improve corporate safety information tracking, groups such as the American Society of Safety Engineers, the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say they want OSHA to scrap the proposal — or at least eliminate the plan to post employer safety data online.

“This isn't about trying to abrogate requirements by OSHA or anyone else,” said Richard Rabs, chairman of RIMS' external affairs committee. “This is really just saying when you're going to put information out there in the public domain, we need to make sure that everyone's playing with the same rules and everyone interprets things the same way.”

OSHA said last fall that it is considering whether to mandate electronic reporting of injury and illness data by employers with 250 or more employees. OSHA said that would expand the number of employers required to report electronic injury and illness data to 440,000 companies, compared with 80,000 that participate annually in the OSHA Data Initiative survey for high-hazard firms, Dave Schmidt, OSHA director of statistical analysis, said during a January public hearing.

The proposal also would make employer injury and illness data publicly available online through a Web-based application that would allow users to search the database by establishment name, state, city and other criteria, Mr. Schmidt said. He said data provided by companies in the OSHA Data Initiative already is available online.

Information to be posted would be the same that the agency already requires employers to track, including injuries that involve days away from work or medical treatment beyond first aid, Mr. Schmidt said.

RIMS, the U.S. Chamber and ASSE submitted comments to OSHA earlier this year requesting that the agency withdraw or revise the rule. They cited concerns over potential underreporting of injuries and illnesses; the possibility that OSHA, unions or other groups could target companies based on their public safety data; and worries that the new reporting standard would increase costs for employers.

In particular, Des Plaines, Illinois-based ASSE is concerned that requiring companies to submit public data to OSHA will cause many firms to focus only on OSHA compliance rather than being proactive in trying to reduce workplace safety hazards, said Dave Heidorn, ASSE's manager of government affairs and policy.

“Our great fear is that many of our members will be forced back into that kind of nonprogressive way of doing safety — that companies will be so concerned about (online data), they won't be doing safety well,” he said.

While companies with strong safety programs probably would report accurate injury and illness data to OSHA, Mr. Heidorn said companies with weak safety track records likely would underreport accidents to avoid appearing unsafe.

“It's going to incentivize not reporting, which is not good safety at all,” Mr. Heidorn said.

RIMS' Mr. Rabs said making OSHA data public would fail to include how accidents occurred or who was at fault.

For example, a fatal vehicle accident involving workers from two companies would be reported as a fatality for both companies, no matter which one was at fault, he said.

“Your record may not really reflect your safety standard,” said Mr. Rabs, who also is vice president of insurance and risk management at Veolia Environnement North America in Chicago.

Marc Freedman, executive director of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, said OSHA's proposal would make companies susceptible to harassment by unions and “activist groups.” In comments to OSHA, the chamber argued that OSHA's rule would lead to “unjustified shaming of employers” rather than increased safety.

“We see it as putting out information that doesn't accurately reflect the employers' safety program and safety record,” Mr. Freedman said.

Experts say they think much of the opposition to OSHA's proposed rule would lessen if the agency agreed to remove the portion that would make safety data publically available online.

“They could change this rulemaking so all it does is collect information instead of pushing it out into the Internet,” Mr. Freedman said.

Aaron K. Trippler, director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association in Falls Church, Virginia, said the organization's members hope OSHA will take into account stakeholder opinions about the proposed rule.

In comments submitted to OSHA, AIHA President Barbara J. Dawson said the association sought assurance that data collected by OSHA would be “accurate and meaningful.”

While experts wait to hear what happens next with OSHA's proposal, Mr. Trippler said it's possible the rule could fall by the wayside to prevent further uproar from employers as major elections draw near.

“We're in a midterm election, and I don't think the White House is going to let OSHA move on anything that might create any kind of controversy,” Mr. Trippler said.

In a statement to Business Insurance, OSHA said it is reviewing comments made by RIMS, ASSE and other groups and will “develop the final rule with these comments under consideration.”