HIDDEN TRAGEDY: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

Source: Majority Staff Report By the Committee on Education and Labor
U.S. House of Representatives, June 2008

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires the Department of Labor to
collect and compile accurate statistics on the extent of occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the United States. Employers are also required to keep accurate records of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths. 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.

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. 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
workplace safety and health “report card” generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics
(BLS). 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.

Experts have identified many reasons for underreporting. Twenty percent of workers– including public employees and those who are self-employed–are not even counted by BLS. Work-related illnesses are difficult to identify, especially when there are long periods between exposure and illness, or when work-related illnesses are similar to other non-work-related illnesses. In addition, recent changes in OSHA’s recordkeeping
procedures have affected the accuracy of the count of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Finally, some employers are confused about reporting criteria and OSHA staff is often not well-trained to provide accurate advice.

But a major cause of underreporting, according to experts, is OSHA’s reliance on self-reporting by employers. Employers 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. Self-reporting allows employers to use a variety of strategies that result in underreporting of injuries and illnesses.

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