By ANDREW R. MCILVAINE, senior editor of Human Resource ExecutiveŽ, a sister publication of Risk & InsuranceŽ
An examination by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that many employers fail to report workplace injuries and illnesses for fear of increasing their workers' compensation insurance costs.
According to the report, many workers do not report job-related injuries because they fear being fired or disciplined and worry that they or their co-workers might lose safety-incentive rewards such as cash or merchandise.
Additionally, the report found that 53 percent of health practitioners reported experiencing pressure from company officials to downplay injuries or illnesses, and 47 percent said they were pressured to do so by workers.
Several workplace-safety experts said the GAO report corroborates what they've observed in the nation's workplaces, particularly with respect to safety incentive programs.
"It absolutely jibes with what I've seen," said Joseph Paduda, a principal at Health Strategy Associates in Madison, Conn., and noted industry blogger. "Many employers have set up these safety incentive programs that essentially reward people for underreporting injuries."
Deb Potter of Potter & Associates, a Tulsa, Okla.-based safety consulting firm, said HR leaders should steer their organizations away from "prescriptive incentive programs" that dole out rewards based on factors such as number of days without a reported injury.
"Most safety incentive programs don't work the way employers want them to," she said. "They tend to drive reporting underground by creating negative peer pressure within the workplace around reporting injuries. People focus on getting the reward rather than the benefit of going home every day without being injured."
Safety bonuses awarded to managers and senior leaders may also have the effect of discouraging workers from reporting injuries, said Potter.
"When leaders' bonuses are tied to reduced injury rates, it creates a dangerous situation because employees suspect they'll be penalized if they report an injury that results in their boss losing his or her bonus. It creates fear within the organization, and that's the last thing you want when you're trying to create a safe workplace."
Potter said a more effective strategy is to use safety incentives to reward safe behaviors rather than reducing injury rates. "Tie the program to positive behaviors, such as reporting a safety hazard, correcting a co-worker who isn't following a safety procedure, attending safety meetings and so on," she said.
Workplace safety can also be undermined by the "wimp" factor, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington. "You're going to have injured workers who just want to tough it out, who don't want their boss or co-workers to think they're a wimp, so they won't report their injury," he said.
Add that to the fear factor mentioned above, where employees fear they won't be selected for certain assignments or their career will be negatively affected in some way if they report injuries.
Indeed, reporting an injury can lead to immediate repercussions for many American workers. A recent survey of 4,387 low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York by the National Employment Law Project revealed that 50 percent of the workers who'd suffered workplace injuries were subjected to illegal treatment by their employers when they reported the injuries. The abuse included immediate termination, threats to call immigration authorities or instructions to not file for workers' compensation, according to the report, titled "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers."
"The workers most abused in such cases tend to be recent immigrants, nonnative English speakers and undocumented workers," said Paduda. "It's a subject that needs to be addressed not just by employers but by we as a society."
Employers that deliberately underreport injuries in order to protect their workers' comp rates are committing insurance fraud--fraud that will impact the entire business community, said Paduda.
"Because of this fraud, workers comp insurers have been assuming much greater risk than they've been pricing for," he says. "This will eventually lead to a lot more audits by insurance companies of their clients, and much higher rates for everyone, especially when the current 'soft market' for workers comp insurance ends, which it soon will."
The GAO issued several recommendations for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a result of the report, such as requiring OSHA inspectors to interview employees when auditing company-provided injury and illness data. It also recommended that OSHA minimize the amount of time between the date that injuries are reported and the date they're audited by the agency.
December 3, 2009
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