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Employers Pressure Doctors, Workers to Stay Mum on Workplace Injuries

By Mike Hall at AFL-CIO Now Blog


More than two-thirds of injured or sick workers in a recent survey feared employer discipline or even losing their jobs if their injuries were reported, a new study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed today.

The GAO surveyed more than 1,000 occupational health practitioners and found:

  • More than two-thirds observed worker fear for reporting an injury or illness.
  • A third said they were pressured by employers to provide insufficient treatments to workers to hide or downplay work-related injuries or illnesses.
  • More than half of practitioners said they were pressured by an employer to downplay an injury or illness so it wouldn’t be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s official log that tracks workplace injuries and illnesses.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the GAO report confirms what rank-and-file workers, local union safety activists and workplace safety professionals have long said:

Employer policies and practices that discourage the reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses are widespread and are undermining the safety and health of America’s workers….These destructive and discriminatory practices must be stopped.

Injury and illness records help OSHA allocate its resources, accurately target its inspections and evaluate the success of efforts to improve workplace health and safety.  Employers underreport injury and illness rates because lower rates likely lead to fewer inspections, improve their competitiveness when bidding for new contracts and lower their workers’ compensation costs.

The report also confirms a recent survey of local unions by the AFL-CIO and national unions that found many employer “safety” programs actually discourage reporting and recording of workplace injuries.

More than half of local union leaders surveyed reported there were safety incentive programs, injury discipline programs, absenteeism policies with demerits for injuries and/or post-injury drug testing policies in their workplaces and that these policies discouraged the reporting of workplace injuries by workers.

Says Trumka:

Employer policies that discourage the reporting of injuries not only undermine the completeness and accuracy of workplace injury data and the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys. More importantly, they prevent injured workers from receiving needed medical care and prevent hazardous conditions that injure workers from being identified and corrected.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says OSHA will hit hard employers who underreport injuries and illnesses:

Many of the problems identified in the report are quite alarming, and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting.

The GAO report was  requested by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and  Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.)  The four are the chief sponsors of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would give OSHA additional tools to combat underreporting of injuries and illnesses by employers.

Says Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee:

We cannot allow the lack of accurate information to permit hazardous working conditions to go unaddressed, putting workers’ health and lives at risk. The GAO report underscores the need for OSHA to have all the tools they need to eliminate incentives that result in underreporting injuries.

Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. says the underreporting of injuries and illnesses is “undermining the health and safety of America’s workers.”

If we don’t know the full extent of the workplace hazards workers face, we cannot fully address these risks. We need to take steps to require employers to provide a full account of on-the-job injuries and to protect workers, so they can report workplace incidents without fear of retaliation.

To read the GAO report, click here.

Be sure to check out “16 Deaths Per Day,” a video by Brave New Films that highlights the weak deterrence and penalties of the nation’s workplace safety laws.