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Proposed OSHA Rule Would Require Public Mandatory Reporting of Injuries

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a new proposed rule from the Labor Department that, for the first time, would require large companies to make their worker illness and injury records public.

The new proposal, affecting companies with more than 250 employees, would drastically change current work-place safety reporting practices. According to the Wall Street Journal, the proposal would require companies to file electronic-injury and illness reports that would be available to the general public. The proposal is an effort to push large corporations to comply with current safety laws.

The Article continues:

Workplace-safety advocates say such measures are important because fines imposed by the Labor agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are often relatively minimal, and the agency has limited resources to inspect workplaces to ensure companies are complying with regulations. Public attention on company safety could have greater impact and prove a bigger deterrent, they say.

Such efforts have long been objected to by employers, who say public attention can present a distorted view of safety practices. Marc Freedman, executive director of labor-law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his and other prominent industry groups would likely protest the proposed new rule during a coming commenting period.

Currently, companies have to keep track of workplace injuries and illness, and post summaries in the workplace for employees to access. Selected companies also have to fill out OSHA and Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys on workplace incidents. Yet under the current system, none of that information becomes publicly tied to specific companies.

In a brief description of the proposed rule, the Labor Department characterized the change as part of President Barack Obama's efforts to increase transparency. It said it would help improve the accuracy of records and statistics, and help prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.

"It's very hard to get information from inside the workplace," said Randy Rabinowitz, an attorney who represents unions and is an advocate of stronger safety enforcement. "This is a way to hold companies accountable in the same way they are held accountable for their environmental or discrimination records or other community values people care about."

Joe Trauger, vice president of Human Resources Policy for the National Association of Manufacturers trade group, strongly disagreed. "Disclosing information of this nature serves little public good, is easily misinterpreted and can lead to unfair conclusions or judgments about a company or particular industry," he said. "This will not fulfill employer and employee goals of making workplaces safer, nor does it get people back to work."

Mr. Freedman of the Chamber of Commerce said he worries that unions or others might use the access to company records to push an agenda, when the injury data may not provide a complete picture of workplace safety.

James Stanley, a former OSHA official who consults for companies, said he worried that companies would be less likely to report as many injuries. "I think they'll try to do everything in the world not to report, because now it's going to be public," Mr. Stanley said. "Injury reporting is not an exact science. The rules are gray at best."

Ms. Rabinowitz, who has written about the importance of more disclosures, said that measures like the proposed new reporting rule could help public-health professionals make connections between chemical hazards suffered in the workplace and those experienced by nearby residents.

OSHA has said the primary purpose of its enforcement program is to deter those who would break the law and, as such, it specifically targets the most dangerous workplaces and the most recalcitrant employers. In a 2010 letter to colleagues on OSHA priorities posted on OSHA's website, David Michaels, the head of the agency, mentioned expanding public awareness of enforcement as one of the agency's key missions in increasing safety at workplaces.

"In some cases, 'regulation by shaming' may be the most effective means for OSHA to encourage elimination of life-threatening hazards, and we will not hesitate to publicize the names of violators, especially when their actions place the safety and health of workers in danger," Mr. Michaels said at the time.

Toward that end, one of the earliest actions after Mr. Obama took office was to reduce the amount of a fine required to automatically generate an OSHA press release from $80,000 to $40,000. That effort has been criticized by some employer advocates, who argue that generating headlines before companies have a chance to contest citations doesn't tell the full story.

"The only impression people are left with is a bad company injuring employees, and the full story that the company took the issues seriously and agreed to do abatement measures, that's lost to the ether," Mr. Freedman said.

"It's making people take notice," Ms. Rabinowitz said. "In some companies, a $50,000 fine doesn't make people take notice. A press release does. The whole idea of an enforcement scheme is to create a deterrent."

Workplace safety is a very serious issue.  When big corporations end up putting profits over the interests of workers, people become seriously injured or killed.  If you or a loved one have suffered a serious workplace injury, the Attorneys at the Manchin Injury Law Group can help.

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