OSHA and Workers’ Comp Figures Don’t Match

A study in the June 2010  issue of Annals of Epidemiology finds that we have two sets of books when it comes to injuries in the workplace.  OSHA reportable figures (as found in the Bureau of Labor Statistics), or those injury stats reported by employers, are 24% to 49% lower than the number of injuries the study found in worker compensation claims.  Injuries have declined since 2000, but fatalities have not.  What gives?

Workers’ comp numbers are the real thing.  Employees don’t care what employers report to OSHA — they want coverage for work-related injuries.  Why the disparity? Some believe that because incentive plans include safety goals related to the injury rate that managers are motivated to put pressure on workers to not report injuries.  Some managers even pressure docs into characterizing an injury as a non-work one.  Other managers ask docs to write a different diagnosis so as to avoid a reportable.  I’ve had employees tell me stories about their managers going with them to the hospital or doctor to get the injury characterized in the “right” way.

And when all else fails on the diagnosis and classification end, there is the always wiggle room of technical compliance with the lost work-day reporting requirements.  There is no question that federal regulations on reportables are confusing.  However, this study seems to indicate something more is going on than just differing interpretations. 

If an employee can return to work, the injury is not a lost work-day report.  Dr. Robert McClellan. formerly the president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, often cites an example of a worker being wheeled onto a construction site with his broken leg so as to avoid a lost work-day report.  So an employee reported for beam work with a cast and in a wheelchair.  That’s close enough when it comes to reporting for OSHA. 

Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.  The end result of all this clever manipulation of injury and safety records is the same as the end result when financial reports are manipulated.  We don’t have transparency.  But, more importantly, we don’t know our true situation.  The numbers become meaningless when loopholes are the govering standard.  Companies with the lowest injury rates may not be as safe as companies with a much higher injury rate.  The difference may not be one of safety, but one of honesty. 

I find myself telling recruiters, because of the high levels of cheating among college and graduate students, to take a hard look at the “C” students.  No one cheats to earn a “C.”  They may well be your most knowledgeable and learned students.  And companies with AIIRs that look like the Keystone Kops are working there may well be safer environments than companies with low injury rates but a wheelchair section for workers rolled onto their sites.   

For more information

Leslie I. Boden and Al Ozonoff, “Capture–Recapture Estimates of Nonfatal Workplace Injuries and Illnesses, Annals of Epidemiology 18(6):500-506 (2008).

Stats are summarized in Kris Maher, “Injuries Are Undercounted, Studies Say,” Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2008, p. A3.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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