By Phil La Duke
Under-reporting injuries is a poor business practice bordering on criminal behavior. Nowhere was this better evidence than when the U.S. government leveed a whopping $70 million fine on Honda of America for doing just that. In what The New York Times describes as a “sharp escalation of penalties against automakers that skirt safety laws” Honda Fined for Violations of Safety Law, Honda was fined for not reporting consumer injuries and deaths caused by quality defects and for not reporting the defects themselves. Last year, General Motors faced similar sanctions.
It’s worth noting that neither company has been accused (at least formally) of underreporting worker injuries, but is that such a stretch? General Motors has consistently reported one of the best safety records in industry and Honda of America hasn’t made OSHA’s radar since 1999 when one of its contractors were fined over $1 million for machine guarding issues.
All that having been said, is it a stretch to believe that companies that deliberately lie to and one branch of the government (the Department of Transportation) about public safety might not also lie to another branch of the government (OSHA) about the safety of its workers? How confidant are you that companies that do not report one set of data (in this case public deaths and defect claims) that is publicly available and can easily be discovered will willingly and openly and accurately report injuries that happen under the shroud of company secrecy? We talk a lot about indicators in this business and to me there is a strong correlation between cooking one set of books and the likelihood that another set of books is equally cooked.
Rumor has it that underreporting is an area of increasing concern among OSHA inspectors and that companies can expect stricter penalties for underreporting.
Underreporting potentially poses a much more serious threat to worker safety than injuries themselves. When a worker is injured it provides the company with irrefutable evidence that safety is not present in the workplace, assuming you define, as most persist in doing, safety as the absence of injuries. As horrible as it is to have workplace injuries the silver lining is that a heretofore-unknown hazard is revealed and can be rectified; not so if the injury goes unreported and unknown.
Companies need not hatch any insidious plot to conceal injuries in most cases thirty years or more of hackneyed incentive programs and half-baked schemes from safety pundits have created a culture where injuries are taboo and only those injuries that cannot be manipulated via case management are reported.
It’s no accident that recordable injuries are falling while fatalities are staying flat (or in some industries actually rising)—it’s tough to turn a corpse into a first aid case no matter how creative you are. Case management has become a crucial part of the safety management system and it should be. No one should be allowed to fraudulently file injury claims in an attempt to cheat the system, but then again, as loathsome as it is, the company has to balance the cost of fighting the cost of fraud against the actual cost of the fraud. This is well known in the insurance and legal communities where it is common practice to settle a dubious lawsuit rather than face a lengthy and costly legal battle. And yet companies still invest considerable sums into case management. Why? Is fraud so widespread that something has to be done or western civilization itself would collapse? No, at least according to studies cited by Lisa Cullen in her article The Myth of Workers’ Compensation Fraud only 1–2% of Worker Compensation claims are fraudulent. So why do so many companies continue to fund Case Management efforts. Is it fiscally responsible to invest money disputing claims when only 2% or less are fraudulent? Not unless disputing claims serves some other, more profitable purpose. In the instance of case management the purpose is clear (although seldom admitted): reducing recordable injuries. I know of cases where companies have sent representatives to the clinic with injured employees to instruct the medical professionals in how to treat an injuries—weighing in on everything from the type of pain reliever used to whether to suture a cut or to close it using butterfly bandages. Such practices smack of questionable ethics but are widespread nonetheless.
Some efforts that discourage injury reporting are less malignant in intent but are just as damaging to the overall efforts to reduce risk. Companies routinely sponsor incentive programs for workers to not get hurt. If that phrasing sounds odd to you it should. When you provide incentive for someone not to do something that they can’t control and aren’t doing on purpose, what message are you sending? When you provide incentive for something beyond one’s control—whether that be injuries or sales—the only true incentive is to cheat and lie. The incentive in the case of zero injury rewards is to underreport.
One can take this effort to discourage reporting injuries even further and pit worker against worker through “behavior observations” which in effect vilify the injured worker; the injured worker spoils the Safety BINGO, and may even cost coworkers their bonuses. The coercive pressure to conceal workplace injuries can be overwhelming.
We talk a lot about changing the culture and about how workers need to change how they view safety, but maybe the cultural change needs to be in who we view injury and injury reporting. If we as organizations and individuals truly value safety we have to stop pretending that condoning injuries provided that they aren’t recordable injuries is the same thing as valuing safety.