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‘Gig economy’ contributes to a new landscape for injury, illness tracking

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Federal agencies should collaborate to improve injury and illness reporting, including to account for a shift in the traditional workforce toward a “gig economy” and collect information on race and ethnicity to identify vulnerable worker populations, according to a new report.

Growth has occurred in nonstandard work arrangements such as the use of independent contractors and the outsourcing of functions to other entities and the development of “on-demand” employment characterized by short-term contracts or freelance work, including drivers for rideshare companies, according to the report published Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The consensus report was developed by a committee of academic experts, regulators, a union representative and an employer representative who is now President Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

This and other changes in the workforce should lead federal agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and OSHA to make critical changes to how they track injuries and illnesses in the workplace, according to the report, which reassessed the state of occupational safety and health surveillance since a 1987 report that first tracked such efforts.

The bureau should routinely collect detailed case and demographic data for injuries and illnesses resulting in job transfer or restricted-duty work, and OSHA should amend its recording requirements to collect information on race and ethnicity as well as on employment arrangements to identify vulnerable worker populations and risks that may be associated with the changing nature of work, according to the report. In the near term, OSHA should make type of employment arrangement such as traditional, independent contractor, temporary agency worker and on-call worker and race and ethnicity mandatory data elements on the OSHA Form 301, and the bureau should incorporate this information into its survey case and demographic data.

“In the area of improving data collection, these recommendations really go to trying to address some of the gaps that we’ve identified in safety and health surveillance,” said Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at labor union AFL-CIO in Washington and the only member of both the current committee and the previous committee that produced the 1987 report.

For example, race and ethnicity information is collected on some injury and illness forms on a voluntary basis, she said. “We think there needs to be uniformity in that area,” she said.

Meanwhile, OSHA should create a public database to release information collected under its electronic record-keeping rule requirements, according to the report.

“OSHA should develop a publicly available and easily searchable injury and illness database based on the electronic reports,” the report said.

OSHA should work with other federal and state agencies and other stakeholders to “develop plans to maximize the effectiveness and utility of OSHA’s new electronic reporting initiative for surveillance,” according to the report. This effort should include plans to provide ongoing analysis and dissemination of this data and to minimize duplication of reporting by employers, including having OSHA and BLS integrate data collection efforts so that employers selected in the annual BLS survey but reporting electronically to OSHA need not make separate reports to BLS.

But in December, the Trump administration’s Fall 2017 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions proposed removing the requirement to electronically submit OSHA Form 300, the log of work-related injuries and illnesses, and OSHA Form 301, the injury and illness incident reports. If such a change is made, employers would only be required to submit electronically information from OSHA Form 300A, the summary of work-related injuries and illnesses – a recognition of employer concerns about the ability of the agency to protect personally identifiable information as Form 300A does not contain such information, unlike Forms 300 and 301.

“If they reexamine and do not get that information, you wouldn’t capture any specific case information about the kinds of injuries that are occurring,” Ms. Seminario said. “You wouldn’t capture any of the information about who these injuries are occurring to. Any of the detailed case information would not be available to the agencies to essentially fill in and have a picture as opposed to an outline of what is happening. And it wouldn’t be available to others to use as well for surveillance purposes.”

All the report recommendations are driven by its “meta-recommendation,” which is that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, with the support of the Secretary of Labor, direct NIOSH to form and lead a coordinating entity in partnership with OSHA, BLS and other relevant agencies.

“This is basically a statement that the fragmentation that currently occurs needs to be overcome,” said Edward Shortliffe, committee chair and professor of biomedical informatics at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Scott Mugno, the president’s nominee to head OSHA and currently the vice president for safety, sustainability and vehicle maintenance at FedEx Ground, a unit of FedEx Corp., was the industry representative on the committee.  

“He was certainly … fully familiar with the report, contributed to the report and signed off on the report,” he said. “We all will watch with great interest to see, if he is appointed and approved by the Senate to become the head of OSHA, how he will embrace the recommendations. But I cannot speak for him now about how he intends to interact with this report once he’s in that position. I’m sure he will have many things on his mind if he is appointed to that position.”