Hiding Industry's Health and Safety Epidemic

Over the last decade, changes in the economy, "reforms" of OSHA and workers compensation law, aggressive employer practices, and persistent inaccuracies in statistical methods have combined to cover up the reality of workplace health and safety. The true picture is an on-going epidemic of accidents, injuries, and illnesses, both temporary and terminal, throughout the private economy.

Officially, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) say that almost every industry in America's bustling economy has gotten safer. As the stock market has soared through the 1990s, the incidence of workplace injuries and illnesses appears to have plunged.

The official explanation is perfectly in line with the market philosophy of the day: The growth of illness and accidents at work in the 1980s jacked up the costs of workers compensation, insurance, and lost production--so our ever-thrifty employers took health and safety seriously at last.

The figures: Expenditures on workers compensation claims, according to a BLS study, more than doubled from 1985 to 1992. Over the same period, the rate of work-related accidents and illnesses rose from 7.6 to 8.9 per 100 workers for the private economy as a whole.

After this, the incidence rate fell to 6.7 per 100 workers by 1998, the last year for which these statistics are available. The total annual number of illness and injury incidents also fell, from 6.8 million in 1992 to 5.9 million in 1998. This, it was said, was the harvest of employers' increased attention to health and safety, as well as new approaches by OSHA.

Case closed? Not quite.


The first thing to be said about the BLS figures on injuries and illness in the private economy is that they are outrageously inaccurate. OSHA, through on-site audits, has found that total injuries and illnesses were underreported by 10-11 percent; lost workday cases, usually the more serious and costly ones, were found underreported by 22-25 percent. The problem is that the BLS depends entirely on employers' honesty and accuracy for these figures, and does not independently validate the reports.

(And keep in mind that these figures do not include long-term illnesses like cancer or asbestosis that originate in the workplace but don't surface for years.)

OSHA uncovered this employer underreporting in 1987 and again in 1998. This recurrence could give the impression that employer dishonesty has always been there and so does not explain the recent decline in the injury and illness rates. But there are several reasons the BLS data has become less accurate.

For instance, in 1992 the BLS began taking state workers compensation data into account in hopes of correcting for employer underreporting. But state workers comp statistics are themselves based on employer reports, continuing BLS' dependence on corporate honesty. Workers comp statistics also contributed to the downward bias of the figures as employers found ways to reduce workers comp cases throughout the 1990s.

As the AFL-CIO says, "Employers and insurers have been aided...by massive changes instituted by state legislatures over the past decade that have reduced benefits and made them harder to collect."

Thus, the inclusion of workers comp data to adjust employer survey results tended to push the incident rates downward in the 1990s, helping to make the recent figures look better.


Next, there is the impact of overtime on the way in which the incidence rate is calculated. In real life, increased overtime inevitably contributes to more accidents, higher disease-producing stress, and immune-busting exhaustion. In the world of BLS figures, increased overtime actually deflates the injury and illness rate.

The incidence rate for injuries and illnesses is supposed to represent the number of cases in a year per 100 full-time workers. To convert workers' varying schedules into full-time equivalents, the BLS divides the number of reported cases by the total number of hours worked by all employees, and then multiplies the result by 200,000--the total hours for 100 workers putting in 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

The problem is, the formula doesn't make sense for industries in which increasing amounts of overtime were worked in the 1990s. As the BLS's Monthly Labor Review pointed out in February, there was an unusually large rise in the amount of overtime worked in manufacturing industries in the 1990s.

The increased overtime has a mathematical effect on the BLS's incidence rate formula. The total number of hours worked in a year rises due to increased overtime, reducing the proportion of cases to hours. But the average 100 workers will work more than 200,000 hours, so the reported cases per 100 workers is artificially low.

For instance, the BLS formula counts 80 people, each working 50 hours per week (4,000 total hours per week), as 100 full-time workers. If 4 of them get hurt, that's counted as 4 injuries per 100 workers. But in real life there were 4 injuries among 80 workers, which equals 5 injuries per 100.

Thus in industries with rising overtime, the formula produces an increasing downward bias on the incidence rates, in addition to any underreporting of the number of cases.


Beyond the statistical flaws in the BLS figures on occupational injury and illness lie the changing realities of work throughout much of the U.S. economy. Globalization, intensified competition, lean production, outsourcing, merger mania-all these have made cost cutting, not quality or safety, "job one."

In fact, the drop in the reported number of injury and illness cases only becomes significant after 1994, when certain changes in OSHA policy kicked in. These changes alone could account for the drop of 844,000 incidents from 1994 to 1998, as well as concealing a possible real increase.



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In 1994, the federal government offered business a way around serious improvements in safety. President Clinton issued a directive to "reward results, not red tape" as part of Vice President Gore's "reinventing government" program.

The idea was for OSHA to work cooperatively with companies to reduce injury and illness cases. OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) offered incentives in the form of lower violation fines for companies with good records. Inspections are reduced and replaced by "consultations" with OSHA on how to seek improvements. OSHA inspections, already extremely inadequate, dropped dramatically after 1994, particularly in construction, while the proportion of OSHA's budget destined for "consultations" rose.

These consultations can provide real information to companies on how to improve health and safety conditions, according to one OSHA consultant. Furthermore, if the company is found to be in violation of any specific OSHA standard during a consultation they are required to fix it.

However, according to the consultant, there is no requirement for the company to accept OSHA's advice or in any way actually improve their day-to-day health and safety practices once the consultation is over.

The "reinvention" of OSHA, along with state workers comp "reforms," offered business ways to cut costs through the appearance of compliance. Results are still measured by employer reports--the ones that OSHA found totally inaccurate. What, then, is the reality of business's new concern over health and safety?


The theory that underlies most business health and safety programs is that most accidents are "behavior based," that is, the fault of the employee(s) involved. This view was developed by H.W. Heinrich of the Travelers Insurance Company in the 1930s. Using supervisors' reports, he first surmised that 73 percent of accidents were caused by "man failure" and later revised his figure up to 88 percent. This figure has held sway in business circles ever since.

Reducing employee "failure" has become the safety credo of most corporations as well as the insurance industry. This approach is focused on safety and has virtually nothing to say about occupational illness, toxic substances, or stress-related diseases.

The safety solutions that follow from this employer-friendly outlook invariably involve an emphasis on "training" in which employees are urged to act more safely and to use personal safety equipment such as masks, safety glasses, or proper footwear. Faulty equipment, dangerous substances, unused or dismantled safe work procedures, and other such factors that imply employer culpability are underplayed.

For example, Ford Motor Company's web site statement on the terrible explosion that killed six workers at its Dearborn plant in 1999 fails to mention the objective causes (and violations) found by state investigators. Rather, it simply lays out its new "Health and Safety Leadership Initiative." The first point in this completely vague program is "Having a zero-injury mindset," the implication being that the explosion was the result of bad thoughts.

As the UAW points out, the behavior-based outlook runs contrary to the more scientific and internationally recognized "hierarchy of controls" approach developed by the National Safety Council in 1950. This approach puts the elimination of hazards and the replacement of unsafe substances or equipment at the top of its list, with engineering controls coming second. Training, procedures, and personal protective equipment come last. In other words, removing the danger from the workplace is more effective than trying to protect each worker from daily exposure. Behavior-based programs, as the UAW argues, turn this hierarchy on its head.

This blame-the-victim approach also produces underreporting. "Behavior-based safety programs drive problems underground, inject fear into the workplace, and discourage workers from reporting illnesses and injuries," argues the Southeast Michigan Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health.

This was shown when a representative of the UAW Health and Safety Department met with a group of 150 workers whose company employed a behavior-based program. According to the union's health and safety newsletter, when asked how many were afraid to report injuries, 50 percent raised their hands. When asked to answer the same question on a piece of paper without writing down their names, the percentage rose to 70.


Business has developed more ways in recent years to discourage or prevent the reporting of injuries or illnesses. One of them is the use or abuse of "restricted duty." "In many companies workers are shifted to an easier job while recovering to keep from reporting an injury," reports the UE News. "What do the companies gain from this? They keep their OSHA logs clear of these injuries and illnesses."

Companies are supposed to report incidents leading to restricted duty in their BLS logs, but these are obviously easier to conceal or underreport than actual days lost. Even so, these are the only BLS injury and illness figures that reveal a strong upward trend for the last decade or more.

Some companies offer economic incentives to employees with clean injury and illness records, clearly a practice that discourages workers from reporting problems. One employer cited in the UE News invited employees who had not reported any injuries or illnesses for a year to a dinner, where one lucky worker won a $10,000 check. The UE calls this "Safety Bingo."

Apologists for industry and the insurance companies argue that such programs only discourage the reporting of fake or very minor illnesses and injuries. Minor injuries requiring only first aid, however, are not even counted by the BLS. Furthermore, as health and safety advocates point out, ignoring so-called minor injuries allows unsafe conditions to accumulate, leading to repeated and possibly more serious injuries.

On top of all of this, in the last several years more and more companies have introduced absenteeism plans that penalize, discipline, and even dismiss workers for absences regardless of the reason. This, of course, encourages workers not to take time off for illnesses or injuries unless absolutely necessary--another pressure that makes recent BLS figures look good.

These kinds of policies are by no means limited to nonunion workplaces. Such an absenteeism policy was an issue in the recent settlement between the United Steelworkers and Bridgestone/Firestone. There, an employee could eventually be dismissed for absences even when the worker had a doctor's note. The new contract modified that draconian policy.

Encouraged by relaxed regulation, industry has learned that it pays to conceal and underreport. They have been rewarded not only with big bucks, but with government statistics that cover up the epidemic of injuries and illness that plagues the American workplace.

Without the hidden data it is not possible to rework the official figures on injuries and illness. It is clear, however, current methods are significantly understating the size, persistence, and direction of illness and injuries on the job.

[Next month: "Unsafe in Any Plant: The Persistent Problem of Health and Safety in the U.S. Auto Industry."]