Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced that workplace injury and illness rates for 2006 were the “lowest ever recorded” and noted it was the fourth consecutive year of a rate decline for private sector employers.
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, showing the lowest rates since the Labor Department began collecting data in 1972, confirms that OSHA’s consistent emphasis on prevention is paying off with lower on-the-job injuries and illnesses. This report encourages us to continue our balanced strategy of fair and effective enforcement…”
Before we allow the Bush Administration to take credit for alleged reductions in incidents of on-the-job injury and illnesses, we should examine what public health scientists have found when they look carefully at the Department of Labor’s statistics.
Lee Friedman, PhD of the University of Chicago Illinois, studied how recent changes in OSHA regulations defining injuries and illnesses affected the reported rates. As Dr. Friedman wrote here on April 24:
“The Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, based on OSHA logs, indicates that occupational injuries and illnesses in the U.S. have steadily declined by 35.8% between 1992-2003. However, major changes to the OSHA recordkeeping standard occurred in 1995 and 2001. A recent study we published illustrates that the steep decline in reported occupational injuries and illnesses during the past 10 years in the U.S. workforce is an artifact resulting from changes to the recordkeeping rules and regulations rather than an improvement in workplace safety.”
The study mentioned by Dr. Friedman was published earlier this year in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (abstract) and concluded that “83 percent of the decline [in injury/illness rates] can be attributed to the change in the OSHA recordkeeping rules.”
Other scientists have identified related problems with our nation’s system of tracking and assessing work-related injury and illness trends. Ken Rosenman, MD of Michigan State University has extensive research experience evaluating occupational injury/illness reporting systems. In one study published in 2006 (abstract), Dr. Rosenman and colleagues set out to quantify how many workplace injuries and illnesses were missed by our current surveillance systems. The researchers matched records reported to BLS with data from workers’ compensation, OSHA reports and other sources, and performed a sophisticated capture-recapture analysis to assess the number of cases missed by these independent systems. The scientists reported:
“…the current national surveillance system did not include…up to 68% of the work-related injuries and illnesses that occurred annually in Michigan.”
Celebrating legitimate improvements in working conditions is A-OK with me, but the statistics touted by the Secretary are too questionable for me to put on my party hat.