Washington, DC — This week’s Government Accountability Office report on systematic underreporting of worker injuries and illnesses highlights the need for deeper reforms that go beyond the report’s recommendations for better audits, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The GAO report documented the effects of nearly 20 years of non-enforcement of recordkeeping regulations by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration that cannot be quickly or easily reversed.
GAO found that widespread underreporting by workers of on-the-job injuries was linked to patterns of pressure by employers against both workers and health care professionals. GAO recommended that OSHA “inspectors interview workers during the records audits to obtain information on injuries and illnesses….” OSHA has pledged to follow this recommendation.
This recordkeeping is the main measure OSHA uses to measure the success of its programs. The records also form the basis for targeting firms and industries for future inspections.
Unfortunately, OSHA has failed to protect the workers that it interviews from retaliation. As a consequence, workers who contradict their employers’ official reports can be targeted for removal or other reprisal. The only recourse for these workers would be to file complaints with OSHA, which has a notoriously poor record of protecting whistleblowers.
“Without deeper reforms, this GAO recommendation just sets up more workers to lose their jobs,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that earlier this year GAO issued another report faulting OSHA’s administration of whistleblower protection laws. “Any workers whom OSHA inspectors interview will have a target on their backs and no way to wash it off.” Significantly, congressional Democrats are pushing legislation to strengthen OSHA whistleblower protections.
Many of the issues in the GAO report are not new – they were the subject of congressional testimony and other disclosures by OSHA’s own top recordkeeping expert, Robert Whitmore. Since 2007, however, Whitmore was kept on paid administrative leave before he was finally fired in late July 2009 for allegedly being too gruff around his colleagues. He had repeatedly decried the notorious inaccuracy of, and lack of enforcement against, bogus employer illness and injury reports.
“If OSHA’s own professional staff is not safe from whistleblower retaliation, what hope do ordinary workers have?” asked Ruch, whose organization is seeking to have Whitmore reinstated to OSHA in a hearing next month. “Many of the same OSHA executives who presided over the recordkeeping debacle remain in place while the only one that spoke out was pushed out.”
One major OSHA reform that Whitmore has been urging is to place the employer injury and illness reports online so that workers, unions, doctors and others could examine them and challenge their accuracy. If OSHA does not voluntarily begin posting the injury and illness rates by firm this year, PEER will obtain them under the Freedom of Information Act and post them on a separate website.
The ultimate outcome of these reforms and the professional future of Robert Whitmore may end up in the lap of Dr. David Michaels, whose nomination to serve as OSHA administrator is scheduled for vote today in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions.