For many workers, their jobs may be the most dangerous activities they engage in on a regular basis. On average, twelve people died each day last year from workplace incidents—amounting to over 4,300 deaths. Moreover, nearly 3 million workers suffered injuries or became ill at work last year.
These statistics actually represent some of the lowest workplace mortality and injury rates in decades, but Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez has urged that the government “can and must do better.” To Perez, the statistics “aren’t just numbers and data – they are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who will never come home again.”
In an effort to reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently proposed a new rule that would add requirements for the electronic submission of workplace injury and illness information. In announcing the agency’s proposal, David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, indicated that the new requirements should provide “better access to data that will encourage earlier abatements of hazards and result in improved programs to reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities.”
The proposed rule would initially affect only those employers who are already required to submit injury and illness reports to OSHA. Under current regulations, approximately 750,000 employers are required to submit records of workplace injuries and illnesses.
While the proposed rule would neither mandate any additional employers to submit injury or illness reports nor require any additional information from these employers, it would add three new reporting requirements. Under the proposed rule, establishments with at least 250 employees will be required on a quarterly basis to submit injury and illness records electronically. In addition, establishments with over 20 employees in designated industries, such as construction or manufacturing, would be required to submit records electronically on an annual basis. These first two changes would replace the current requirement that these employers must submit these records on a physical form. Finally, the proposal would require any employer receiving an information request from OSHA to submit these electronic records.
Although the new reporting requirements would not provide OSHA with any new information about injuries or illness in the workplace, the agency maintains that electronic reporting would enhance the usefulness of the data it does collect. Currently, all records are submitted on physical forms and sent to the agency, whereas the agency emphasizes that the new regulation would allow OSHA to maintain timely and more direct access to the reports.
Under the proposal, OSHA would eventually post the data online, making the injury and illness records available to the public. The agency maintains that public disclosure of this data would further President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, designed to increase transparency in the government. The agency also suggests that publicly posting injury and illness data online would encourage employers to improve workplace safety conditions in order to protect their reputations. With this information available to the public, potential employees would be able to gain vital information concerning places they are interested in working for, while the general public would be enabled to make more informed decisions about places they are considering doing business with.
However, employers have typically opposed such disclosure measures. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to oppose the proposal because the organization believes that making these records public would likely distort public perception of workplace safety.
The proposed rule follows a series of stakeholder meetings conducted in 2010 aimed at assisting OSHA modernize its injury and illness data collection system. The agency indicated that stakeholders were generally receptive to electronic submissions of data because many are already keeping electronic records. Stakeholders’ primary concern, according to the agency, was ensuring that the submission process would be simple, straightforward, and compatible with worker’s compensation systems and other data submission requirements.
Following the announcement of the proposed rule, however, some observers have expressed doubts. For example, one public comment to the proposed rule, stated an objection to the proposal because it would be “overly burdensome and difficult” for employers to implement. However, the agency estimates that the proposed rule would have an annual cost of about $12 million dollars, meaning each affected employer would incur additional costs of only between $9 and $183 per year.
The agency also maintains that the benefits of the proposal outweigh any cost it would impose on employers. Although the agency is unable to quantify a dollar amount to the prospective benefits of the proposal, it believes that the new reporting requirements will enhance safe working conditions, provide a more accurate depiction of workplace safety, increase transparency, and improve research on occupational safety and health.
OSHA is seeking comment on its proposal through February 6, 2014.