By Lee Friedman

The Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII), based on OSHA logs, indicates that occupational injuries and illnesses in the U.S. have steadily declined by 35.8% between 1992-2003. However, major changes to the OSHA recordkeeping standard occurred in 1995 and 2001. A recent study we published illustrates that the steep decline in reported occupational injuries and illnesses during the past 10 years in the U.S. workforce is an artifact resulting from changes to the recordkeeping rules and regulations
rather than an improvement in workplace safety.

In February 1996, OSHA proposed changes to the casualty recordkeeping procedures required of employers. A new recordkeeping rule (29 CFR 1904.17) took effect in 1997, but had already been applied to the SOII data collection procedures in 1995 and 1996 under the Office of Management and Budget Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995. The rule change stipulated that data collection would be conducted by mail or electronic transmissions. However, prior to 1995, the recordkeeping standard specified that employers were to “permit access to” or “make available” data to OSHA during on-site visits if requested. OSHA’s access to employer documentation for the SOII survey
became more limited under the revised 1997 regulation.

Then in 2002, a new OSHA recordkeeping rule was adopted. Although the rule change for OSHA recordkeeping took effect in Jan 2002, the mandated annual reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses by employers occurs between February and April. Therefore, 2001 injuries and illnesses were recordable under the new 2002 rule. The new regulation dramatically changed which casualties were deemed “recordable”, and in most cases a more exclusive definition was implemented.

These regulatory changes affected how employers (1) interpreted the recordkeeping standard, and (2) reported injuries.

Based on a time-series analysis, we observed substantial and significant declines in the number of occupational injuries and illnesses reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1995 and 2001. Prior to the first major recordkeeping change in 1995, injuries and illnesses declined annually by 0.5%. In the period 1995-2000 the slope grew steeper to -3.1% (p<0.01) followed by another more precipitous decline occurring in 2001-2003 (-8.3%; p<0.01). Changes in employment, productivity, OSHA enforcement activity and
sampling error do not explain the large decline. These precipitous declines are associated with both major changes to the OSHA recordkeeping standard. The findings have been published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine (2006, March; EPUB).

This study demonstrates a clear relationship between regulatory changes and reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses in the U.S. SOII serves as the primary source of occupational injury surveillance data for public health researchers and policy makers in the U.S. Recently, on April 24, 2007, government and industry advocates used the decline in reported injuries and illnesses as proof that OSHA policies are successful in reducing occupational injury and illness. During the past decade, Secretaries of Labor have also cited the SOII data as evidence that the Department of Labor have improved workplace safety.

It appears that the majority of the reported decline in occupational injuries and illnesses since 1992 can be attributed to the regulatory changes for recordkeeping. Based on the baseline slope (joinpoint regression analysis, 1992-1994), we expected a decline of 407,964 injuries and illnesses during the period of follow-up if no intervention occurred. But in fact we observed a decline of 2.4 million injuries and illnesses of which 2 million or 83% of the decline can be attributed to the change in the OSHA recordkeeeping rules.

The current SOII survey has obvious limitations and the process of reporting and analyzing occupational injuries and illnesses needs to be modified. Government bodies responsible for the data collection should implement more rigorous auditing of companies’ recordkeeping practices and publicize these visits both prior to and after SOII data collection in order to maximize the impression that these data collection procedures are fair and frequent.

Finally, BLS should use weights to adjust for known underreporting and underestimating of injuries and illnesses.

Friedman LS and Forst L. The Impact of OSHA Recordkeeping Regulation Changes on Occupational Injury And Illness Trends In The U.S.: A Time-Series Analysis. Occ Environ Med. 2006, March; EPUB.

Lee Friedman is Director of The Social Policy Research Institute and Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, the University of Illinois at Chicago.