With a friendly administration in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, unions are pushing hard for changes in how the federal government researches and reports annual injury and illnesses.

States the AFL-CIO in its recently published annual state of job safety and health report: “While government statistics show that occupational injury and illness are declining, numerous studies have shown that government counts of occupational injury and illness are underestimated by as much as 69 percent. A study published in the April 2006 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that examined injury and illness reporting in Michigan has made similar findings. The study compared injuries and illnesses reported in five different data bases – the BLS Annual Survey, the OSHA Annual Survey, the Michigan Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, the Michigan Occupational Disease reports and the OSHA Integrated Management Information System.

“It found that during the years 1999, 2000 and 2001, the BLS Annual Survey, which is based upon employers’ OSHA logs, captured approximately 33 percent of injuries and 31 percent of illnesses, reported in the various data bases in the state of Michigan. A similar study published in 2008 comparing the injuries reported to state workers’ compensation systems with those reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Annual Survey in six states for the years 1998-2001 found similar results.

“The study, which examined reporting in Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin found that the BLS survey captured 50 to 75 percent of the injuries and illnesses that occurred, missing half to a quarter of the injuries and illnesses that occurred in these states. As with the Michigan study, more injuries and illnesses were reported to the state workers’ compensation systems than to the BLS survey.

“The BLS data underestimates the extent of workplace injuries and illnesses in the United States for a variety of reasons. First, the data exclude many categories of workers (self-employed individuals; farms with fewer than 11 employees; employers regulated by other federal safety and health laws; federal, state and local government agencies; and private household workers). This results in the exclusion of more than one in five workers from the BLS Annual Survey. In addition to the built-in exclusions, which BLS is candid about, there also is underreporting for other reasons. There are a number of factors —mostly economic—that help explain underreporting:

“1) Workers’ compensation systems create incentives for employers to underreport by increasing costs for companies that show an increase in injuries.

”2) Firms seeking government contracts may fear being denied a contract if their injury rate is too high.

“3) OSHA’s reliance on injury rates in targeting inspections and measuring performance creates a clear incentive for employers not to record injuries.

“There also are many reasons why workers may not report an injury or illness to their employer:

”1) Economic incentives can influence workers. Employer-implemented programs that offer financial rewards for individuals or departments for going a certain number of days without an injury may discourage workers from reporting. A recent report by the California State Auditor documented one such case where the use of economic incentives on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project was identified as a likely cause of significant underreporting of injuries.

“2) Employees do not want to be labeled as accident-prone.

”3) Employers implement programs that discipline or even terminate workers when they report an injury, discouraging workers from reporting.

“4) Workers may be reluctant to apply for workers’ compensation; many others do not knowhow to use the workers’ compensation system.

“5) Foreign-born workers, whether in the country legally or not, face additional barriers to reporting. They may not know how or to whom to report the injury. They may fear being fired or harassed or being reported to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The union report continues: “Under the Bush administration, officials at OSHA largely ignored the issue of underreporting, continuing to rely on employer reports of workplace injuries as evidence that policies were working, despite overwhelming evidence that this information is unreliable. Moreover, there were no efforts or initiatives to enhance enforcement on OSHA injury and illness recordkeeping requirements.

“In 2008 and 2009, the problems of underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses were the subject of Congressional attention and action. In June 2008, the House Education and Labor Committee held an oversight hearing to explore the extent, causes and impact of injury underreporting. The Senate Labor Appropriations Subcommittee reviewed the issue during the hearing on the FY 2009 Department of Labor appropriations bill. The committee then acted to provide funding for a number of initiatives on underreporting. The final FY 2009 omnibus funding bill provided $1 million for an enhanced OSHA recordkeeping enforcement program;$1 million for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to further study problems of injury underreporting; and $250,000 for NIOSH research on underreporting.

“At the request of Senators Edward Kennedy and Patty Murray of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Representatives George Miller and Lynn Woolsey of the House Education and Labor Committee, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is conducting an in-depth study on underreporting and employer injury recordkeeping practices. The GAO report on the results of the study is expected to be published in the fall 2009. Hopefully these initiatives will provide additional information on the extent and sources of injury and illness underreporting and lead to changes in policies and practices to address problems of injury underreporting,” concludes the report.