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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


Work Injuries Down?
Check Your OSHA Logs

UE News, January, 1999

The U.S. work injury and illness rate went down in 1997 to its lowest level in OSHA’s history, according to data released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just before Christmas.

This is the fifth consecutive year that this rate has dropped. It now stands at 7.1 work injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers for all private industries. (In other words, about 7 out of every 100 full-time workers — seven percent — on average are injured or made ill by their jobs each year.) This is less than the rate for any year since 1971, when OSHA went into effect.

A total of 5.7 million workers suffered work injuries in 1997; and 430,000 suffered work illnesses, including carpal tunnel and other repetitive motion conditions. Almost two thirds (64 percent) of the 430,000 illnesses were repetitive motion cases.

So is the U.S. workplace now safer than at any time since 1971? I don’t think so, despite this rosy data. The problem, as I and others see it, is that the number of OSHA inspections has been at historically low levels over the past five years. Thus employers know that if they under-report injuries and illnesses, especially many of the less serious ones, they are not likely to get caught.

As labor representatives have repeatedly told OSHA leaders, a strong, steady OSHA enforcement program is needed to keep employers honest. Without it, many employers will slack off on compliance with OSHA standards, and under-report injuries and illness. This, I believe, largely explains the drop in reported injuries and illnesses over the past five years.

However, this doesn’t mean the BLS data is useless. It tells us, for example, about the relative rates of injuries and illnesses in different industries. After all, if we assume that employers in all industries under-report the data by about the same percentage, then the relative injury rates among different industries would still be approximately correct.

FEBRUARY OSHA LOG

During the month of February we will have an opportunity to check out whether the employers in the plants and workplaces our union represents are under-reporting our work injuries to OSHA. As you know, every year during the month of February each and every workplace covered by federal or state OSHA must post a copy of OSHA Form 200, a summary sheet of occupational injuries and illnesses in the plant during the past year (1998). These log sheets must be posted in an area in which employees regularly gather. (That is, employers can’t post the log sheet outside the plant manager’s office if workers don’t regularly go by there, nor can they post it in another building where workers in your shop rarely go.)

Check the injuries and illnesses reported for your shop or plant. A reportable OSHA incident is one which was work-related, and which requires medical treatment beyond first aid. So if you or a fellow or a sister worker had to be sent out to a local clinic to stitch up a cut, or if you received a burn which was treated by the plant nurse and involved bandages which had to be changed regularly, or if you had to be shifted to a lighter job for a few days because of a work injury, these incidents were reportable on the OSHA log. If they were not listed, or if there were any other incidents requiring days lost or more than first aid, you should report this to your local’s health and safety committee or to a union officer. Then this can be brought to management’s attention — let them know that the union is keeping an eye on their reporting and that we insist that the reports to OSHA be accurate.

Also, check that all of the workers’ compensation claims settled this year are reported as OSHA incidents. (If the claim is contested by the company’s insurance firm, they do not have to report it until after the comp system determines that it is work-related.)

If there are many work-related injuries and illnesses not reported for 1998, your health and safety committee should insist that a corrected version be posted to replace the original one. If the company refuses to correct its errors, it may be possible to file a grievance under the health and safety clause in your contract, and your local may wish to do this. Finally, your local may want to report this to OSHA as a violation of its OSHA log requirements. However, given OSHA’s anemic enforcement record recently, I would not suggest this as an effective course of action. As always, I’d suggest handling this like most other workplace issues through the union and directly with management. Calling in third parties like OSHA often complicates the resolution of a problem.


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