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Reporting Plan Makes a Bad Idea Worse


By Robert Ikenberry

Reading about the proposed requirement for companies to upload their OSHA 300 logs got me thinking.

OSHA says the proposed rulemaking to improve tracking of workplace injuries and illnesses is not a big change for employers, but simply moves the reporting and recordkeeping that is already required from paper to the web.

Images: OSHA

OSHA says the proposal will improve illness and injury tracking.

I don't claim to know all about the proposal, but it seems to be in line with another trend in government: encouraging:or requiring self-reporting of violations. As contractors, we see this particularly with Stormwater Pollution regulations.

I think it is a particularly bad idea.

As many politicians discover, it's not the act that really gets you in trouble, it's the cover-up.

Fessing Up

There are so many disincentives to “Self-Reporting.” It's really hard to get people to do it.

Meanwhile, if it's important for society to have accurate information about problems—whether they are occurrences of diseases, frequencies of oil spills, or severity of industrial accidents—we need to rethink how we gather these important statistics.

Dr. David Michaels

The changes would give employers and the public "better access to data that will encourage earlier abatement of hazards and result in improved programs to reduce workplace hazards," contends OSHA Administrator David Michaels.

Where we think there is a societal value to having good information (presumably so that we can do something positive to solve a problem), maybe we should think carrot rather than stick.

If entities that reported uncomfortable, awkward, or potentially damaging information about their own actions were protected from liability—a sort of immunity for testifying—we might know a lot more about potentially dangerous stuff that may be happening and how we can work to reduce it.

If tracking an item by self-reporting is so important, there needs to be indemnification or benefit to the reporter.

Worker's Comp is something like this. In exchange for promptly reporting and treating industrial injuries, employers are protected from being sued by their workers. The system isn't perfect, by far, but it sure works a lot better for both parties than having to litigate every injury.

The Pluses of a Low Profile

Currently, the OSHA 300 logs are kept by employers and posted only for a period (three months) at a location accessible to workers (not necessarily the public). In my experience, this is a very low-profile activity and NOBODY EVER LOOKS AT THEM.

The logs never need to be sent to OSHA (or much of anyone else). Nobody double-checks them, and the penalties for under-reporting are pretty much nil. On the other hand, the risk from reporting honestly is pretty much nil, too, so companies have relatively little incentive to fudge.

OSHA Mockup

Injury and illness logs would be transmitted electronically to OSHA and become public.

My understanding of the new system is that it will require that these logs be transmitted electronically to OSHA and, presumably at that point, become public records for any attorney, union, insurer or prospective client to peruse.

None of these parties ever had access to this info before, and none are likely to use the information in ways the employers would approve of.

Pressure on the Honor System

When we ask employers to self-report potentially damaging information (the sort of errors that could lead to lawsuits, liability or loss of revenue or prestige), they have strong incentives to hide, rather than produce, the information.

This leaves even "good" companies facing tough choices—ones with unintended incentives that may lead them down a wrong path.

If we want to ensure that spills are cleaned up and hospital errors are tracked, it could help to make sure that the companies who report them aren't then immediately facing lawsuits.

Decision Tree

When the results could go viral, will a difficult reporting decision become even harder?

Government funds or industry insurance could pay for the clean-up and help figure out how to avoid these errors in the future. We do some of these kinds of things for vaccines, where the benefit is larger than the individual (we all need the "herd immunity" that a majority of members being vaccinated provides).

We eventually penalize companies with poor Worker's Comp injury records with increasing Experience Modification Ratings (EMRs), but they aren't related to any one injury. Similar plans could reward clean companies and increase costs for dirty ones without direct disincentives to report.

Ticket to Hide

As far as requiring companies to send in accident reports to OSHA, if the real goal is better statistics, the proposed rule sounds like it will lead to less accurate reporting and more incentives to hide accidents.

Today, very few contractors are fined for underreporting injuries, but having a bad (and public) injury record could be disastrous—even for injuries that weren't the company's fault. To ensure accurate submission of injury statistics, OSHA should ensure that all electronic reports are anonymous, with any employer identification omitted from the start.

When it comes to government, we can't always get what we want from regulations.

But we pretty much always get what we incentivize—intended consequences or not.


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Health & Safety; Health and safety; OSHA; Regulations

Comment from Robert Bullard, (3/20/2014, 9:57 AM)

As a design-build professional, I completely disagree. Construction is a dangerous business. If a company does not report and the accident is revealed by other means to be an OSHA violation, the resulting penalty, additional safety and surveillance requirements, etc. should be amplified. If we do not do this the least of thee in the construction business will drive job site safety further down; instead the least of thee must be exposed so that those of use who do more than shout the mantra of safety can actually compete in the market place with our true moment by moment commitment to job site safety. And, of course, the flip side is that in moving the safety record up, our workers comp rates should over the long haul diminish.

Comment from Steven Perkins, (3/21/2014, 11:06 AM)

Government regulations are the least efficient and most expensive process to attempt to accomplish anything. They are rarely successful in accomplishing the intended result but hugely successful in assembling monstrous bureaucracies of incompetent people drunk with authority. Another fool's errand.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/4/2014, 8:56 AM)

Sure, nobody looks at the OSHA 300 logs - because they are typically hidden and only notionally "accessible" to workers. Only keeping these records for 3 months is utterly ridiculous. Workers should be able to read their employers' full safety records - and thereby make informed decisions from the information. Do I want to work for this dangerous employer? Do I want to stay with my safe employer, or go work for 10% more at another employer with a poor safety record.

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