The Case For and Against Public Injury & Illness Data

May 26, 2016 By
Two weeks ago, OSHA issued a final rule that will make information about workplace injuries and illnesses available online. Under the provisions of the rule, establishments with 250 or more employees will be required to submit information from their Forms 300A, 300 and 301 to OSHA electronically. Establishments with 20-249 employees in certain high-risk industries will have to submit information from their Form 300A only. Some of the information will then be posted on the OSHA website.

OSHA’s intentions are clear. As stated in its press release and rule Fact Sheet, the agency wants employers to benchmark their safety and health performance against industry leaders, encouraging them to improve their safety programs. According to OSHA, “behavioral economics tells us that making injury information publicly available will ‘nudge’ employers to focus on safety”, and “public disclosure will encourage employers to improve workplace safety and provide valuable information to workers, job seekers, customers, researchers and the general public.”

When I first heard about the rule, it did not seem controversial to me. Just like many people, I thought it was a significant development with big consequences. With OSHA making injury and illness data public, it meant that companies had to take safety performance more seriously than before, even if they were already doing so. I also anticipated the usual resistance from pro-business organizations who argue that additional workplace regulations put a burden on employers and thus hamper job creation, especially for small businesses.

The American Society of Safety Engineers Reacts to the Rule

However, I found the reaction to the rule from the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) very interesting. To give some context, the ASSE was founded in 1911 and is the world’s oldest professional safety society. The ASSE is a global association of occupational safety professionals representing more than 37,000 members worldwide. In other words, the ASSE is one of the foremost safety organizations. They do not represent a narrow special interest supporting positions that are contrary to the benefit of the general public.

Michael Belcher, the President of the ASSE, issued a statement regarding the rule. Here are the main arguments put forward by Belcher:

  • The rule’s emphasis on data collected after injuries and fatalities occur is contrary to the best practice, adopted by many safety professionals, of measuring leading indicators, which better indicate how to avoid injuries and illnesses.
  • Injury and Illness rates were never intended to be used as a performance measurement, but that’s exactly what’s going to happen if they are published.
  • The rule will not affect companies that already do not adequately report these data and are not committed to their workers’ safety.
  • The requirement that employer injury data is publicly reported will cause the worst employers to report even fewer incidents.

Underlying Concerns Regarding the Rule

Two underlying themes are reflected by ASSE’s arguments. First, the importance of leading indicators compared to lagging indicators. According to ASSE, when asked whether the rule puts too much focus on reporting lagging indicators rather than advocating the use of leading indicators, OSHA said that, while employers should embrace leading indicators, “there simply is not enough agreement about what those should be“, adding that “counting injuries and illnesses that people have had tells us a great deal.”

Second, the unintended consequences of shining a spotlight on weaknesses and failures. No company likes to look bad in front of the public. While the right attitude is to eliminate failures, thereby improving your public reputation, some companies unfortunately may find it more convenient to simply hide their failures. ASSE is arguing that the rule may lead some companies to adopt the latter path. Since incident data would be publicly available, some companies would simply report fewer incidents, even if it’s wrong. They may judge that the risk of looking bad is higher than the risk of getting caught underreporting incidents.

What do you think? Is OSHA’s rule a step in the right direction, or do you agree with ASSE that there are strategic and practical reasons why the rule is not a good idea? It is a debate worth following and one that we will certainly address again in future posts.

Categories: EHS

1 Comment

  1. Jiaqi Reply

    Some interesting thought indeed!
    Perhaps some form of anonymous reporting would alleviate some of the concerns raised in the article?

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