OSHA Reduces Reports of Workplace Fatalities: Move comes as agency cuts back on the amount of information on accidents made available to the public
By Alexandra Berzon Aug. 27, 2017 12:41 p.m. ET
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is reducing its reporting of fatalities in the U.S., part of a series of moves by the agency that are cutting back the amount of information about workplace accidents made available to the public.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had long complained about the practice, asked OSHA to roll back some of the information in the fatality reporting and other initiatives when the Trump administration took over.
The publication of the reports—listing the names, locations, employers and circumstances of people who were reported to OSHA as having died in apparent accidents at work—began early in the Obama administration. Before that, OSHA did compile some information about fatalities, according to former OSHA officials. But they said Obama administration officials made the reports more publicized and included additional information.
Last week, OSHA removed links to reports going back to 2009 from its website. Instead, the agency posted a more limited set of information about U.S. workplace fatalities that resulted in citations for companies dating back to the beginning of the year. An OSHA spokeswoman said the new fatality-data listing respects the privacy of surviving family members because they don’t give out the name of the worker who died.
OSHA’s weekly reports were, for some, an important regular reminder of the human cost of workplace accidents and a source of information about workplace safety.
“It’s really important pieces of information just for raising public awareness,” said Celeste Monforton, an occupational health lecturer at George Washington University who writes extensively about OSHA.
To some companies, however, the release seemed an overreach of government that could produce unfair black marks on employers before the deaths had been fully investigated.
Under the Obama administration, “they saw this as a way to scare employers straight,” said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The idea was that companies would work harder on compliance if they knew the details of any accidental deaths at their facilities would be made public. The Chamber disagreed with that approach and thought that it unfairly maligned some employers.
With the election of President Donald Trump, OSHA has taken several steps that have cut down on publicizing information about workplace accidents. In addition to the change in fatality reporting, OSHA has begun the process of rolling back a regulation that went into effect Jan. 1 of this year to require workplaces to electronically file to the government the injury logs they keep at their work site. OSHA had planned to eventually post some data from the forms online.
OSHA also has reduced the number of press releases it issues to publicize enforcement actions against employers. In December, the agency had 30 such press releases. In January, that number dropped to 18, and February and March had no enforcement releases from the agency. OSHA has put out five enforcement releases in August.
Under the new fatality reporting system, OSHA is posting links to fatality citations, which don’t include the name of the worker who died, for accidents only in states regulated directly by the federal agency. It doesn’t include states that operate their own OSHA programs, which is about half. Previously, the site included most workplace fatalities, regardless of whether they were under the control of federal OSHA.
Waiting until after citations are issued also creates a lag time of up to six months and limits the fatalities listed to only those that result in citations.
The regular posting of the fatality reports—called “Fatality and Catastrophe” or “Fat/Cat” reports—was part of an effort to humanize workplace-accident statistics, according to former OSHA officials. In addition to posting the weekly reports of recent accidents, the agency also put a scrolling box on the side of its home page with the names of workers who had died in accidents.
“The whole point of putting that up there was to impress on the American people that we had a serious problem with workplace deaths in the United States,” said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA under President Barack Obama. “That it wasn’t just numbers. It was real people.”
OSHA last week removed the names of the workplace accident victims from its home page and put in their place a scrolling list of companies and safety committees that work cooperatively with the agency. One recent post in the scroll lauded an auto body shop in Arkansas that hasn’t reported an injury since 2011.
Under the Obama administration, the workplace fatality rate continued a slight downward trend from the previous administration, falling to 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015 from 3.7 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2008, according to Bureau of Labor Department data.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which covers safety for mining workers, has continued to post extensive investigation reports about mining fatalities, including the names of the workers who died.
Mr. Barab displays a weekly roundup of workers who died on the job on his personal blog, which he culls primarily from local newspaper articles. A similar effort to publicize these deaths through social media is run by a group of family members of people who died in workplace accidents.
Write to Alexandra Berzon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 28, 2017, print edition as 'OSHA Cuts Down Fatality Reporting In the Workplace.'