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Don't We Want to Reveal the Good News About Workplace Safety?

Rather than keeping information of workplace injuries under wraps, Americans should be happy to learn we're seeing fewer of them.
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Last month the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration proposed (PDF here) that companies with more than 20 employees publicly post information about on-the-job injuries and illnesses. Federal law already mandates that these companies keep track of that data; the new regulation would allow the public to see the numbers and the companies (but not the victim IDs) which in turn would lead businesses to work even harder at being safe.

The idea fits in with the less-is-more type of regulation President Obama has extolled. “We are seeking more affordable, less intrusive means to achieve the same ends – giving careful consideration to benefits and costs,” he wrote in a 2011 op-ed. “This means writing rules with more input from experts, businesses, and ordinary citizens. It means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices.”

Perhaps predictably, some employer lobbies oppose the rule, although the only cost identified by OSHA is staff time emailing existing data to the agency once a year (or quarterly for places with 250 or more workers). “Publicly disclosing specifically injury and illness data serves little public good,” Amanda Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers told NPR. “It's easily misinterpreted and can lead to unfair conclusions or judgments about a company or particular industry.”

"The injury and illness data that is to be made public by the proposed rule won’t include information that explains how the injury occurred."

That’s kind of a standard response when a business, or a government, for that matter, is asked for greater disclosure: The public’s too dumb to understand what they’re seeing. It’s not just businesses making this case, nor do they necessarily see their argument in the damning light I’ve used—the editors of Scientific American, I’d argue as an example, probably have a fairly generous view of their readership.

“The injury and illness data that is to be made public by the proposed rule won’t include information that explains how the injury occurred, such as whether an employee acted in an unsafe manner or failed to follow the employer’s safety rules,” explains attorney Michael J. Moberg at Lexology, the website for corporate counsels. “The incomplete information OSHA intends to make public may allow competitors, plaintiff’s lawyers, unions, and others to distort this information and wrongly label employers as unsafe or as ‘bad actors.’” Seems like a case for fuller disclosure, then, not less....

(Moberg also points to the Obamacare computer debacle, and hints that government itself might not be competent to handle posting this potentially sensitive information.)

Then again, opposition may fall more along the Howard Beale model—businesses are fed up with regulation, even cheap and easy ones. As one new paper on the regulatory burden of workplace safety rules notes, “In 2011 USA businesses were required to comply with 165,000 pages of regulations, covering all areas, not just safety.” (If it’s any consolation, many Western democracies are in the same boat, authors Andrew Hale, David Borys, and Mark Adams write in the journal Safety Science, although some are bailing out the flood of silly rules faster than others.)

While they were looking mostly at more onerous workplace rules and not at disclosure, Hale and company touch on one of the benefits that public shaming has over imposed rules: “If external rules are phrased as goals, outcomes, or risk-management process rules, the task of translation and adaptation remains inside the company and can still power the motor of rule management.” In short, companies know how to manage companies better than the government knows how to manage companies.

Given these concerns, you might think workplace injuries were becoming more of a problem to he covered up than a success story to be trumpeted. Liability costs aside—and that’s a legitimate concern—workplace injuries in the U.S. actually are falling and have been for some time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year three million American were hurt or sickened on the job. The figure, which only covers private industry, comes down to 3.4 cases per 100 full-time workers. (Being more than full-time, by the way, is a recipe for getting hurt.) Says BLS, “The rate reported for 2012 continues the pattern of statistically significant declines that, with the exception of 2011, occurred annually for the last decade.” Fatalities, which include homicides and road accidents, were down again in 2012 (to 4,383). That’s the second lowest total in the two decades that those records were compiled—and keep in mind that’s set against a growing workforce.

Although, as Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for workplace safety said, “Three million injuries are three million too many,” on the whole this is a good news story. Why aren't we celebrating?