As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Story Of American Workplaces

(This post is part of Brave New Films' 16 Deaths Per Day campaign, for which I am a blogger fellow.)

Steven Greenhouse reports in the New York Times that employers are routinely underreporting illnesses and injuries to their workers.

The report, by the G.A.O., the auditing arm of Congress, said many employers did not report workplace injuries and illnesses for fear of increasing their workers’ compensation costs or hurting their chances of winning contracts.

The report also said workers did not report job-related injuries because they feared being fired or disciplined and worried that their co-workers might lose rewards, like bonuses or steak dinners, as part of safety-based incentive programs.

“The widespread underreporting so clearly documented in this report is undermining the health and safety of American workers,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “If we don’t know the full extent of the workplace hazards workers face, we cannot fully address these risks.”

Mr. Harkin was one of the Congressional leaders who requested the report.

It's hard to even determine the problems with workplace safety when employers are systematically undermining the data. And it's impossible for industry to take credit for declines in workplace injuries and even fatalities if the official data cannot be trusted (that decline can also be attributed to the overall decline in the workforce due to the recession, too, as well as the decline in staffing at the agencies that keep the records). In fact, the GAO report concluded that OSHA may have failed to account for "up to two-thirds of all workplace injuries and illnesses."

See, OSHA relies on data from employers for a bulk of its surveying about workplace safety. That's right, the foxes write up the reports about the henhouse. When you start talking to people other than the site managers, some interesting statistics crop up:

The accountability office also found that more than a third of the occupational health practitioners it surveyed said that employers or workers had pressured them to provide insufficient medical treatment to hide or play down work-related injuries or illnesses.

The safety and health administration requires employers with more than 10 workers to record every work-related injury or illness that results in lost work time or medical treatment other than first aid. Some occupational health practitioners say that to avoid recording an injury, some employers will try to limit treatment for a serious injury to just first aid.

In other cases, the practitioners said, employers might seek alternative diagnoses if the initial diagnosis would result in a recordable injury or illness.

They want to avoid OSHA site inspections, which they know the agency is only equipped to perform on the most egregious violators. If you stay out of sight, you'll be out of OSHA's mind, in all likelihood.

When you read the independent reports, outside of OSHA, you begin to get the true picture of what American workplaces look like. In the low-wage market, there are all kinds of systematic violations, forcing employees to work longer hours for less pay - and these violations extend to health and safety. This stress and strain may account for the shocking rise in workplace suicides over the last year.

“This report confirms that when it comes to the documenting of workplace injuries, we can’t just take employers at their word,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety. “The system, to this point, has been all too easy to game.”

Which is why we need real changes to the system like the Protect America's Workers Act.

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