The Scarlet O: OSHA’s List of Unsafe Employers

April 17th, 2007 by

We recently blogged the publication of OSHA’s list of 14,000 employers with “high” workplace injury and illness rates. One of the links posts the list as an Excel spread sheet, so you can search, state by state, to find the names of frequent flyers.
But what exactly does the list tell us? Is it automatically an indicator of a safety-deficient employer? Is OSHA handing out “the Scarlet O“?
In their own press release, OSHA backpedals from the start. While they are publicizing their list of 14,000 workplaces with “high” injury and illness rates, they are quick to add that help (OSHA itself) is readily available. OSHA states that the notification “was a proactive step to motivate employers to take steps now to reduce those rates and improve the safety and health environment in their workplaces.”
“This identification process is meant to raise awareness that injuries and illnesses are high at these facilities,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Edwin G. Foulke, Jr. (You may remember Foulkie from a prior blog on fatality rates. He is still presumably doing a heck of a job.) “Our goal is to identify workplaces where injury and illness rates are high and to persuade employers to use resources at their disposal to address these hazards and reduce occupational injuries and illnesses.”
So OSHA has pointed a finger at a few thousand employers. Just how should they take this news?
Inadequate Data
OSHA uses employer-reported data from 2005. The 14,000 workplaces identified had 5.3 or more injuries or illnesses resulting in days away from work, restricted work activity, or job transfer (DART) for every 100 full-time workers. The national average for all industries during 2005 was 2.4 DART instances for every 100 workers.
There are a few problems with OSHA’s data:
First, the information, because it is self-reported, is not very accurate. Many employers have no clue how to fill out the forms. They make a lot of mistakes. (For the most part they err on the side of omission, rather than over-reporting their rates.)
Second, some employers are over-zealous in their own reporting. They report everything, which may give the appearance of higher-than-average rates, but really reflects higher-than-average safety awareness (especially in regard to incidents that do not result in lost time).
Third, the data lumps too many items together: they include not just incidents resulting in days away from work (the most reliable indicator of safety issues), but incidents requiring modified duty or job transfer. That’s a very broad net.
Finally, a single incident rate for all industries is pretty meaningless. The rates should be industry specific.
Even as they publish this somewhat embarassing list, OSHA is not concerned enough to schedule visits to the violators. Later this year they will announce a “limited” number of companies for targeted inspections.
If OSHA is really serious about profiling high risk employers, they need to do some more homework. For starters, they could lobby their fellow feds at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to revive the data collection effort that came to an abrupt halt in the early 1990s. BLS used to publish some very useful and compelling data, including the average number of lost workday cases and case rates by specific industry. Those benchmarks were extremely helpful for employers trying to answer the key question: How are we doing relative to others in our same type of business?
OSHA as Officer Friendly?
Mr. Foulke’s tenure at OSHA has been characterized by a lot of platitudes and not much in the way of enforcement. We are in an era of “self-enforcement” – which works for some and does not work at all for others. Here’s a quote from a speech Foulke gave to the national tower erectors association:

Here is an analogy anyone can relate to: When you see a police officer on a street corner, you are not afraid of him. You might even go up and ask for directions and you’ll be grateful for the advice. However, you are also aware that if you run a red light, that same friendly, helpful police officer will issue you a ticket that could result in your paying a hefty fine for breaking the law. This is how I want all employers to think of OSHA.

Hmm, OSHA as Officer Friendly. If you belong to a racial minority, or if you are an undocumented immigrant, you might well be afraid of the cop on the corner. In many instances, you would be too afraid to ask his advice. In addition, if you did run the red light, you might or might not get a ticket. Those in powerful places have ways to make those tickets disappear, while most of us have no option but paying the fine. The analogy is a bit more complicated than Foulke would admit.
When we think of OSHA in its current form, we see the federal agency responsible for workplace safety pandering to the powerful, whether safety conscious or not, and ignoring the interests of the worker. The agency, driven by hard-line ideology, is out of balance.
In the final analysis, can we do anything useful with OSHA’s list of 14,000 “high frequency” employers? Probably not. OSHA’s “Scarlet O” is neither a badge of shame nor honor. It doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s really just a big fat zero.