DOL Just Doesn’t Know How to Take Good News
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First the good news: the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the DOL’s own keeper of stats) just announced that workplaces in 2009 were safer than they were in 2008: "nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses among private industry employers declined in 2009 to a rate of 3.6 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers, down from a total case rate of 3.9 in 2008. BLS also reported a decline in the total number of cases from 3.7 million in 2008 to 3.3 million in 2009." This continues a virtual straight line trend towards fewer injuries in the workplace dating back to the creation of OSHA in 1971.
Of course, the best number and target is zero. Still, any movement in that direction should be recognized as progress and welcomed. But one would be hard pressed to find any sense of that in the reaction from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis’s statement on these numbers. In addition to making the point that zero is the target, she also reiterated her belief that employers are coercing or otherwise discouraging employees from reporting injuries: "We are concerned about the widespread existence of programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries, and we will continue to issue citations and penalties to employers that intentionally under-report workplace injuries."
Unfortunately, this Department of Labor and OSHA seem incapable of accepting that employers are actually doing a better job protecting their employees; that in fact the multi-faceted approach begun by the Clinton administration and continued during the Bush years of combining enforcement with outreach and compliance assistance for employers has been a successful strategy. Instead, this crowd is continuing to push the theme that employers are systematically underreporting and if we only knew the real story, we would understand the need for the aggressive enforcement-centric attitude this administration has championed.
Their first attempt to prove this through a National Emphasis Program did not produce their desired results when they targeted employers with better than average safety records in hazardous industries--in effect saying "we know you’re hiding something and we’re going to find it"--so they’ve retooled it now to go after employers with less sterling safety records--in effect saying "we know you must be hiding something because you’re actually reporting injuries."
The crowning irony to all this is that at the end of this administration, what will this Secretary and her OSHA use to show they have been effective (I assume, they’ll want to show they were effective)? Why, the BLS Injury and Illness rates, of course. Those same statistics they can’t quite seem to accept right now. I can’t wait.