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On-the-job injuries will be posted online in safety push

On-the-job injuries will be posted online in safety push
Baltimore, MD -- Drew Greenblatt is the owner of Marlin Steel in south Baltimore. He's worried about new OSHA regulations that will publicly disclose all workplace injuries and illnesses. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Incidents of on-the-job injuries at specific employers are about to become public for the first time in a searchable online database, part of a federal push to shed light on and improve worker conditions.

But some businesses fear the move by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will breach privacy, hinder competition and amount to unfair public shaming — without boosting safety.

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A rule finalized earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Labor applies to large and small employers in a range of businesses considered high-risk, including grocery stores, home furnishing retailers, hospitals, nursing homes, manufacturers, trucking companies and urban transit systems. Already required to maintain internal logs of injuries and illnesses, those employers soon will be ordered to share those reports electronically with OSHA for public posting.

The rule takes effect Aug. 10 and will be phased in over two years. The first set of annual data is due to OSHA by July 2017.

"By making public establishment-specific injury data, we will 'nudge' many thousands of employers to increase their efforts to prevent injuries, illnesses and deaths," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor of occupational safety and health, during an announcement of the rule. "No employer wants to be seen publicly as operating a dangerous workplace."

Workplace injury disclosures will encourage injury prevention in the same way sanitary-condition reports on restaurants encourage food safety improvements, the Labor Department said.

An estimated 3 million workers suffered a workplace injury or illness in 2014, including 68,600 in Maryland, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At a time when injury incidence rates are declining in the United States, employers and industry groups representing manufacturers and retailers are calling the new requirement misguided. They say OSHA has offered no studies, data or other information to show safety will improve as a result of public disclosure.

"Even employers with the best safety programs and records have expressed concern about this regulation because they know the danger of having injuries reported out of context and the strong likelihood that such injuries will be used to mischaracterize their approach to workplace safety," said Drew Greenblatt, president of Baltimore-based manufacturer Marlin Steel, one of five Maryland companies that participates in OSHA's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program, or SHARP.

He argues that merely recording an injury has no bearing on whether the employer has a strong safety program or record. Injuries such as bee stings or those that result from heart attacks or car accidents show nothing about an employers' policies, training or commitment to safety, he said.

"This regulation will merely result in an unmanageable amount of raw data being dumped on OSHA and then put out for anyone to use as they choose," Greenblatt said.

The Arlington, Va.-based Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents retailers, product manufacturers and suppliers, also believes the rule does little to advance workplace safety.

"Instead the new requirements will force employers to post sensitive workplace safety data without providing necessary context, which could potentially skew employers' injury and illness trends over time and render the data vulnerable to misinterpretation," Jennifer Safavian, the group's executive vice president for government affairs, said in a statement.

The Labor Department said the numbers and types of injuries from individual employers have not been widely accessible. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles estimates of industry-specific rates, employers typically do not send logged injury reports to OSHA. Inspectors, who can visit only a fraction of the nation's workplaces in any given year, may only review reports occasionally, the department says.

Michaels said the new rule, first proposed in 2013, reflects the Obama administration's "commitment to transparency and public empowerment."

The online reports will list employers by name but will remove personally identifiable information. Employers with 20 to 250 workers will send information, from a form they already use, on the total number of injuries and illnesses and the number of hours worked to provide an annual injury rate. Employers with more than 250 workers will submit the same summary data, plus a log of injuries and more detailed reports.

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The move is being applauded by the AFL-CIO, which said increased transparency will help OSHA and workers identify hazardous workplaces and protect workers against retaliation for reporting injuries. Employers will be subject to citations and penalties for retaliating, and workers will be more willing to report injuries, said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president.

Michaels said workers will be able to choose safer employers, and employers can benchmark their safety against others in their industry.

"It does not add to or change an employer's obligation to maintain injury and illness records," or add costs, Michaels said.

Mark Habicht, former president of Baltimore-based Kirk-Habicht Co., a custom maker of springs for industrial use, disagreed.

"Everything that is added to our reporting requirements takes time away from doing other things for the company and ultimately is an added cost," he said in an email. "The higher the cost of doing business, (particularly non-production expenses that we can't control) the less chance we have of being competitive with countries that don't have these unnecessary expenses. Competition is tight as it is without having to add more cost."

Neill Christopher, vice president of manufacturing operations for Acadia Windows & Doors in Rosedale, worries that specific information posted online could be misused. But he said his company has found that having a way to analyze injuries can help make workers safer.

The company, a member of OSHA's SHARP program since 2007, has used a free consulting service through Maryland Occupational Safety & Health since 2003, when Acadia began hiring developmentally disabled workers through The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region and wanted to improve the small factory's safety. The service, which includes yearly visits from MOSH consultants and helps employers control safety and health hazards, has taught the manufacturer to track not only injuries but "near-misses."

While a near-miss, such as a cut on a finger that did not require stitches, won't show up on an injury log, "they want us to start paying attention to everything, discuss it and learn from it," Christopher said. "Do we need different kinds of gloves, and was the employee using the right tool?

"Everything we did to make it safer for people from The Arc made it safer for everybody," said Christopher, who said Acadia Windows has gone more than 10 years without a "lost time" incident. "It reflects on building a culture of safety where everyone puts safety first."

Habicht, the former Kirk-Habicht executive, said his company went about a decade with no lost-workday injuries, a streak broken by an employee who got dust in an eye and was told by a doctor to stay out a day. He argues that companies already strive to have a safe workplace.

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"We can't afford to have good workers on the bench," he said.

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