OSHA pursues electronic safety reporting

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A plan to shed more light on the safety records of U.S. employers is being hailed by regulators and safety consultants. But the targets of the initiative fear the data could provide a misleading view of their workplaces and be used to promote causes other than safety, including union organizing.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration wants employers with more than 250 employees to electronically submit quarterly illness and injury reports that they already are required to maintain at their facilities. OSHA would make the data available online so that it could be analyzed to prevent workplace accidents.

The proposal, announced Nov. 7, also would require companies with 20 or more employees to electronically submit an annual summary of safety records they already maintain.

OSHA officials emphasize the proposal does not impose any new record-keeping burdens.

"Employers, employees, the government and researchers will have better access to data that will encourage earlier abatement of hazards and result in improved programs to reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries," said assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels at the Nov. 7 press conference.

He was accompanied by former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill, who said a 24-hour reporting system at Alcoa enabled the aluminum producer to identify and address safety issues sooner.

"These electronic quarterly reports are a great step," Mr. O'Neill told reporters.

The proposal is being met with trepidation by industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says it is another example of the Obama administration's aggressive and ill-conceived approach to regulation. The chamber believes online disclosure of the safety data will make companies targets for groups that want to portray companies as having bad safety records.

"The mere recording of an injury does not mean the employer was at fault, or tell the full story of what happened, or indicate the company's overall approach to workplace safety and its full record," the chamber's Marc Freedman said in a prepared statement.

Mr. Freedman also took issue with OSHA characterizing the proposal as part of President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative. That effort "is about providing interested parties more access to an agency's decision- and policy-making process, not about providing sensitive information to the public for them to use as they wish," he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers said there is potential for the data to be misinterpreted.

"All you're seeing is a hard number," said Amanda Wood, the industry group's director of labor and employment policy. "It can lead to unfair conclusions or judgments about a company or a particular industry.

"If the end game is to have a safe workplace, I just don't know how this is going to achieve that," she said.

A Mars-based safety consultant acknowledged that the data could be misleading, but said the benefits "far outweigh the negatives."

"I believe this will give a new incentive for companies to place a higher priority on their safety programs," said Jeffrey Lancaster of Lancaster Safety Consulting. "Employers for the first time would have an immediate basis to see how their safety records compare to their competitors."

In online comments he submitted to OSHA, Mr. Lancaster said the online database would allow safety consultants to reach out to companies that need help improving their health and safety programs.

Many companies and industry groups are still formulating their responses to the proposal. The American Iron and Steel Institute said it is asking U.S. Steel and other members how the change would affect them.

"We intend to fully engage with OSHA during this process," the industry group said in a statement.

The United Steelworkers union supports the proposal. It believes the online reporting will allow OSHA to use its funding more efficiently.

"We think it makes a lot of sense. It's information OSHA should have and it's information that ought to be public," said Mike Wright, the union's director of health, safety and environment.

"It's helpful to know where people are getting injured so we can intervene," he said.

Jeff Shockey, Alcoa's global safety director, wants to learn more about how OSHA plans on using the data. He said the company has been using a real-time computerized safety data system for more than five decades.

"There is no question that having access to that data has helped us identify risks and strategically focus on reducing the potential for fatal or serious injuries," Mr. Shockey said.

Groups representing paint, can, plastics and rubber manufacturers as well as independent bakers and electrical contractors are among those that have notified OSHA they will participate in a meeting the agency will host on the proposal in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 9.

Comments on the proposed rule are due Feb. 6. They can be made online at www.regulations.gov. Entering "OSHA 2013-0023" in the search field will provide a copy of the proposal and instructions on how to submit comments.

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.

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