WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal safety regulators on Thursday proposed major changes in workplace reporting rules that would require large companies to file injury and illness reports electronically so they can be posted online and made available to the public.
Safety advocates said the proposal by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would put more pressure on companies to comply with safety rules and make it easier for employees and the public to identify businesses with poor safety records. But business groups contend making the information public could be misleading and intrusive.
OSHA head David Michaels said the changes would provide better access to data for government safety inspectors as well as workers, employers, researchers and the public.
"Public posting of workplace illness and injury information will nudge employers to better identify and eliminate hazards," Michaels told reporters in a telephone news conference. "We believe that responsible employers will want to be recognized as leaders in safety."
OSHA said the change is in line with President Barack Obama's initiative to increase public access to government data. The plan would require companies with more than 250 employees to submit the data electronically on a quarterly basis. That would cover about 38,000 American companies, Michaels said.
Companies with 20 or more employees in certain industries with high injury and illness rates would be required to submit electronically a summary of work-related injuries and illnesses once a year. That would cover another 440,000 companies.
Under current rules, employers are required to post annual summaries of injury and illness reports in a common area where they can be seen by employees. While the OSHA web site contains raw numbers about incidents at certain workplaces, it doesn't describe what the injury was or how it occurred.
Some companies are also asked to submit their data to the Bureau of Labor statistics for its annual report on workplace injuries. But that data does not reveal the company where an incident occurred.
Michaels said OSHA would eventually post the data online after removing any personal identifiable information, though he didn't say how soon that would happen. But he said the more quickly it's posted, the more effective it will be in helping prevent future injuries. Given OSHA's limited resources, he said, the new filing procedures would help OSHA target its enforcement more effectively where workers are at greatest risk.
Business groups say they are likely to oppose the plan, contending that raw injury data can be misleading or contain sensitive information that can be misused.
Marc Freedman, executive director for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the mere recording of an injury does not tell the full story about the circumstances surrounding it or whether the company has a good safety program.
"Making company-specific data on injuries available for all to see would be a major problem and would likely lead to companies being targeted by outside groups who want to characterize these employers as having bad safety records," Freedman said.
Eric Frumin, health and safety director at the Change to Win union federation, said the new process creates very little burden on employers that are "simply providing additional details that they are already collecting on the causes of these injuries and ways to prevent them."
Interested parties have 90 days to submit comments on the proposal. OSHA will consider the comments and hold a public hearing on Jan. 9 before deciding whether to approve the plan.
Private employers reported nearly 3 million workplace injuries and illnesses last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 4,300 workers died last year after being injured on the job.
OSHA has only 2,400 inspectors to cover nearly 8 million workplaces nationwide. Michaels said would take almost 100 years to inspect every workplace once. The new plan would help the agency target its inspections on those companies with safety problems and reduce inspections at those with good records, he said.
Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University's School of Public Health who specializes in work health and safety policy, said mining companies have had their injury reports posted online for years on the Mining Safety and Health Administration's website. That has allowed the public and employers to compare safety records and has pressured some companies to improve.
"Mine operators have been doing this forever and the world did not come to an end," Monforton said. "It's all about disclosure."
Some safety advocates have complained for years that OSHA fines are often not high enough to deter companies from having unsafe workplaces. The average OSHA penalty is about $1,000 and the median initial penalty proposed for cases where a worker is killed is $5,900.
But Congress has resisted calls to increase the agency's authority to impose greater fines. Public disclosure of accident reports could be another way for OSHA to increase pressure on companies to comply with safety rules.