Flawed basis for OHS decision-making

Most strategic plans made by OHS regulators in Australia are based on workers’ compensation statistics.  Everyone agrees that this is a huge underestimation of the work-related injury and illness rates but no one yet has tackled this information deficiency.

Australia’s OHS harmonisation might attempt this but it will not be until the government harmonises the States’ workers’ compensation system that Australians can have unified and consistent statistics.  Yet even then, the reliance on workers’ compensation data will continue to understate the significance of work-related injuries on the community.

The Australian inaction contrasts to activity undertaken in the United States by the Government Audit Office (GAO).  An October 2009 report by the GAO, released online on 16 November and discussed in blogs and one US newspaper, shows the state of OHS statistical play in the US through its audit of the operations of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

  • OSHA only audits 250 of the 130,000 high hazard worksites each year.
  • All of the data available is provided by employers.  Workers are not interviewed.
  • If the worker has left the company’s employment, they are unable to be interviewed.
  • “OSHA also does not review the accuracy of injury and illness records for worksites in eight high hazard industries because it has not updated the industry codes used to identify these industries since 2002. “
  • Statistics supplied to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by employers are not verified. (BLS is not required to do this)
  • The GAO identified disincentives on both employers and employees for reporting illnesses and injuries – potential job loss, fear of increasing workers’ compensation premiums or losing out on work contracts.
  • The disincentives may lead to a reduced medical treatment so as to avoid injury reporting and the issues associated with the reporting. (A third of health practitioners interviewed admitted to being pressured about workplace injuries)

On this last point, those OHS professionals who advocate safety incentive schemes may wish to consider the graphic below

Pressure From Workers to Downplay Injuries and Illnesses and Awareness of Incentive Programs

Of the 47% who said they were pressured to downplay injuries and illnesses, over 60% were from workplace s that had incentive programs.  This is a serious statistic that incentive advocates must address in their programs.

Australia has tried to gain greater accuracy to OHS data over many years.  The (then) National OHS Commission published several very useful statistical reports into various industries but they could not provide an easily understood national picture because of State variations on reporting criteria.  Australia is much less complex than the US and the task of achieving better OHS statistics should be easier, as long as there is the political will.

The importance of accurate statistics in decision-making at the policy level as well as that at individual workplaces cannot be overstated.  The GAO report summarises the significance in its report.

“Accurate injury and illness records are important because they assist Congress, researchers, OSHA, BLS, and other agencies in describing the nature and extent of occupational safety and health problems.  These records are also vital to helping employers and workers identify and correct safety and health problems in the workplace.  In addition, these records help OSHA evaluate programs, allocate resources, and set and enforce safety and health standards.  Without accurate records, employers engaged in hazardous activities can avoid inspections because OSHA bases many of its safety inspections on work-related injury and illness rates.”

Kevin Jones

My thanks to Workplace Professor Blog for bringing the report to our attention.

6 thoughts on “Flawed basis for OHS decision-making”

  1. Grant, you are spot on as usual. In the many, many years I have been working I can say that nothing has really changed. David Lee is right as well, it is about the culture. If management are able to intimidate and influence employees into not reporting injury (especially in a dare I say it, recessive economy where jobs are lost at an alarming rate daily) into minimising the harm, into not speaking up when some task really has some horrendous impact on safety, when safety is a priority but not when production is hampered; then we will always be behind the 8 ball.

    Dr Eric Wigglesworth was always comparing the progress (or non!) of safety with those in the medical field and safety came up short. I\’d like to say that that is not the fault of the safety professionals, I know many who would walk away from a client if their ethics were compromised, but it is extremely difficult to break into the culture of Production is God.
    Still we keep batting on and as the comments on this post show, there is a keeness of safety professionals to do the right thing.

  2. I found this article very interesting. I agree that there is a huge under-estimation of work related injuries. Other reasons for this are injuries that arise from the nature and condition of the work and that are diagnosed as age-related; less serious injuries that are not reported and treated then eventually become serious and are not accepted as work-related injuries.
    I have also heard of companies that encourage their staff to claim work-related injuries from their trauma insurance.

    Faith

  3. At the end of the day are the statistics relevant, look at global warming – I could prove we are statistically in an ice age. We as safety professionals need to leave the computer and get onto the shop floor. It is all about culture, and we have the biggest problem starting now with generation Y entering the work force. Their culture is to video a risk and show it on the internet and not be concerned with the risk – it comes from a childhood of no consequences.
    Grant we need to talk about relevant statistics, as I fully agree with your sentiments.

    1. Dave

      I am approaching the age of \”old fartism\” and my teenage children are reflecting some of your concerns. I try hard not to reproduce the attitudes of my parents that I bristled at in my youth and have to bite my tongue often. However, I encourage where I can and have optimism that some of the new ways of communicating may lead to new ways of seeing for the 21st century.

      Do you know of any examples of the application of root cause analysis to psycho-social hazards? I would be interested in knowing what was the root cause of a stress claim in a white collar job?

  4. Kevin,

    \”This is a serious statistic that incentive advocates must address in their programs\” – its not the programs, you can put anything into a system but in the end it is the culture of the business and management. Until HSE advocates stand up and get rid of the BS factor called \”LTI\” we will only ever play little games with our statistics.

    Look at the fortnightly report on statistics that I send out in relation to Workplace Fatalities. These are only the fatalities that are reported in mainstream media and in reality are around 1/3 of the true fatalities that are occurring, 170 people being killed every month from Jan 1 this year. Why aren\’t the government doing something about it?

    Rather than action issues we will play around with politics and pretend to harmonise laws…What a joke!! Australia will never fully harmonise the laws, too many jurusdictions want autonomy and are not happy with changing their state requirements due to the differences with mining, rail, maritime, aviation, manufacturing…etc

    I totally agree with your statement…

    \”Most strategic plans made by OHS regulators in Australia are based on workers’ compensation statistics. Everyone agrees that this is a huge underestimation of the work-related injury and illness rates but no one yet has tackled this information deficiency.

    Australia’s OHS harmonisation might attempt this but it will not be until the government harmonises the States’ workers’ compensation system that Australians can have unified and consistent statistics. Yet even then, the reliance on workers’ compensation data will continue to understate the significance of work-related injuries on the community\”

    WE need consistency in all our OHS acts, regs and standards sooner rather than later. After all it is a matter of life and death isnt it!

    1. Grant

      Thanks for the comments.

      I also think that it is not so much harmonising State jurisdictions that will be the hardest challeng but harmonisng the safety rules within the disparate industries of mining and rail, in particular. From my own experience in rail, the update of the \”Blue Book\” of safety rules has not been finalised and never will because the national rail network was never established in a coordinated manner initially.

      Some legislation drafters have told me that they would recommend the draft Act be rejected and a new timetable established but I can\’t see that being politically attractive. It may just mean that we end up with a half-finished Act that could be reviewed again and at more leisure in five years\’ time.

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