Employers and Workers: Artificially Lowering Workplace Injury Statistics?


By Jim Thompson

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) - Officially speaking, there were nearly 3 million workplace injuries in the United States in 2015, according to the latest data year from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII).

But those numbers are widely acknowledged, even by the BLS, to be inaccurate. The BLS notes on its own website that the bureau and its research partners “have conducted multiple studies which indicate that SOII failed to capture some cases…” But, the BLS assessment goes on to note, the agency and its partners “could not determine the magnitude or leading cause of an undercount.”

If the BLS is at a loss for explaining workplace injury “undercount,” a number of studies and workplace safety experts have developed data and conclusions indicating three dynamics that can explain why workplace injuries and illnesses almost certainly are substantially higher than indicated in the SOII.

Two major trends, among both employers and workers, consistently produce inaccurate workplace injury and illness data. According to experts and studies, some employers simply under-report workplace injuries, while any number of workers “under-claim” — opting, for a variety of reasons, not to pursue workplace injury claims through their state’s workers’ comp system.

The issue was framed nine years ago in a congressional committee staff report noting that “extensive evidence from academic studies, media reports and worker testimony shows that work-related injuries and illnesses in the United States are chronically and even grossly underreported. As much as 69 percent of injuries and illnesses may never make it into the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), the nation’s annual workplace safety and health ‘report card’ generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If these estimates are accurate, the nation’s workers may be suffering three times as many injuries and illnesses as official reports indicate.”

The June 2008 congressional committee report, “Hidden Tragedy: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses — A Majority Staff Report by the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives,” is particularly critical of the federal government’s reliance on businesses self-reporting their workplace injury data. 

“Employers have strong incentives to underreport injuries and illnesses that occur on the job,” the report states. “Businesses with fewer injuries and illnesses are less likely to be inspected by OSHA [the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration]; they have lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums; and they have a better chance of winning government contracts and bonuses. Self-reporting allows employers to use a variety of strategies that result in underreporting of injuries and illnesses.”

Also, the report notes, workers “report widespread intimidation and harassment when reporting injuries and illnesses. Reports, testimony and news accounts show that many employers have fired or disciplined workers who report injuries and illnesses or complain about safety hazards. Others have added ‘demerits’ to an employee’s record for reportable injuries or illnesses or for absenteeism that allegedly result from ‘safety violations.’”

Added into that mix, according to Dr. Les Boden, Ph.D., an economist and environmental health professor with the Boston University School of Public Health, are state legislatures routinely making it more difficult for workers to file claims, in an apparent attempt to make their states more attractive to business development.

For example, Iowa legislators earlier this year amended workers’ comp regulations to, among other things, eliminate a provision that an employee wasn't required to file a notice of injury until he or she recognized the possible impact of the injury on their employment. The law now requires notice within 90 days of when the employee knew or should have known the injury was work-related.

Other evidence of that trend includes a 2013 change in Tennessee that raised the burden of proof for claimants. Also in 2013, Indiana capped payments to doctors and hospitals, and Oklahoma limited some occupational disease claims. In 2014, North Dakota increased its use of independent medical examiners to resolve treatment disputes. According to a report from ProPublica, the examiners routinely rule against patients.

Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit organization whose work includes strengthening worker protection, concurs with the view that increasing legislative pressures on workers’ compensation programs has played a role in under-claiming by workers.

“Most workers’ compensation laws have been seriously weakened over the last ten years,” Berkowitz told WorkersCompensation.com.

Part of the fallout from those changes is that today, in all but the most routine cases, workers need an attorney for help in navigating a claim, according to Berkowitz. As a result, some injured workers often decide simply to take the leave allowed at their job to stay away from work and heal as best they can, she said.

Workers who do decide to get treatment outside the workers’ comp system will use their own personal health insurance to address a workplace injury, Berkowitz said. It’s also possible that workers who have no insurance will opt to get treatment for a workplace injury in a hospital emergency room, where they can’t be turned away.

The end result, Berkowitz said, is that “employers are outsourcing the liability for these injuries.” In addition to health insurers, those burdens are shifted to families, taxpayers, charity organizations and other entities, Berkowitz noted.

On the employer side of the issue, Boden concedes that some employers might simply be confused by workplace injury reporting requirements, and aren’t providing accurate data for the SOII as a result of that benign circumstance.

But, amplifying the congressional committee’s conclusion that there are a number of incentives for self-reporting businesses to minimize workplace injury rates, Boden said managers may not want to have injuries reported due to some concern that those injuries would reflect poorly on their supervisory abilities, potentially adversely affecting their future in the workplace. 

Boden went on to note that some so-called safety initiatives undertaken by employers might serve to lead to under-reporting of injuries. Programs that strive to achieve a certain number of non-injury days at work in exchange for some sort of employee reward could, in effect, serve as a disincentive for workers to report injuries, he explained.

Also according to Boden, some employers may worry that a successful workers’ compensation claim could produce what the employer would see as “a contagion” of additional claims. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is taking steps to address the admitted under-reporting of workplace injuries. The bureau did some research on the issue from 2012 to 2014 that included interviews with employers in four states regarding their injury and illness recordkeeping practices. There was some follow-up to that study in 2015 and again in 2016, and the BLS is engaged this year in a trial test of collecting injury and illness data directly from employees.

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