Immediate injury reporting: Will OSHA have or be on your back?

Two active Department of Labor matters beg: Is it right for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to demand timely reporting of major worksite injuries, but wrong for an employer to mirror such policy on minor bumps and lacerations?

In the first year of a new reporting requirement for severe work-related injuries, companies notified OSHA of 10,000-plus incidents, spurring opportunities for the agency to work with employers to eliminate hazards and protect other workers. Since January 2015, employers have been required to report any injury involving hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye within 24 hours, and remained bound by an eight-hour limit for workplace fatality reporting.

In the program’s inaugural year, employers reported incidents surrounding 7,636 hospitalizations and 2,644 amputations. OSHA responded to a majority of cases by working with the employer to identify and eliminate hazards, rather than conducting a site inspection. “The prompt reporting of worker injuries has created opportunities for us to work with employers we wouldn’t have had contact with otherwise,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. “The result is safer workplaces for thousands of workers.”

His just-published Year One of OSHA’s Severe Injury Reporting Program: An Impact Evaluation finds the reporting requirement has positioned the agency to better target resources where they are needed, and engage employers in high-hazard industries to identify and eliminate hazards.

Contrast the program wrap up with a federal court case emanating from the mothership: The Labor Department is testing Occupational Safety and Health Act anti-discrimination provisions in a lawsuit contending United States Steel Corp. wrongfully suspended two Pennsylvania employees who reported treatment for symptoms of injuries perhaps occurring a few days prior while on the clock. Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel requires immediate workplace injury reporting.

In complaints filed with OSHA, a Clairton Plant utility technician and Irvin Plant (West Mifflin) laborer alleged that U.S. Steel suspended them in retaliation for reports of, respectively: an infected, swollen hand from which a splinter had been removed; and, shoulder stiffness possibly attributable to minor hardhat–low beam contact. The Clairton worker was suspended without pay for two days, his Irvin colleague for five days. The agency found the company violated OSH Act Section 11(c) when it used the immediate reporting policy as a basis for sanctioning employees who report injuries “late.”

“U.S. Steel’s policy discourages employees from reporting injuries for fear of retaliation,” notes OSHA Regional Administrator Richard Mendelson, Philadelphia. “Because workers don’t always recognize injuries at the time they occur, the policy provides an incentive for employees to not report injuries once they realize they should, since they are concerned that the timing of their report would violate the company’s policy and result in some kind of reprimand.”

Through its U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware suit, the Labor Department seeks to a) direct U.S. Steel to rescind and nullify the immediate injury reporting policy and compensate suspended employees for lost wages and benefits; and, b) permanently enjoin the company from enforcing a policy that requires employees to report their workplace injuries or illnesses earlier than seven calendar days after the injured or ill employee becomes aware of his or her injury or illness.

In a position statement, U.S. Steel emphasizes safety as a “primary core value” and notes how the company coined “Safety First” in 1912. “By making safety and health a personal responsibility,” it reads, “our employees are making a daily commitment to follow safe work practices, look out for the safety of co-workers and ensure safe working conditions for everyone.”

There is more at stake in the Labor suit than U.S. Steel making whole a few employees who were suspended for a total of seven days. How much should the federal government be entitled to meddle in the management of a company that shows zero tolerance when employees, in the course of work duties, choose not to speak up right away when they break skin or bump their heads?