PSA: Occupational and non-fatal injuries are being undercounted

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Statistics are an important tool in the campaign to lower the rate of workplace injuries. Collected data shows businesses where they've been and helps to inform the decision making process as they move forward. Previously on the SFC blog, we discussed how a company can benchmark its rates of injury against the national averages. That information is very helpful to managers that want to keep their business ahead of the curve in terms of workplace safety. But what if the national data isn't as comprehensive as it claims to be? The National Safety Council's 2013 report on injury facts noted that non-fatal workplace injuries were being dramatically undercounted. For business owners and managers, this means that the outlook of their safety plans might not be as sunny as they appear.

How are workplace injury statistics recorded?
There are two ways in which injury statistics are gathered. For fatal injuries, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conducts the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). According to the National Safety Council (NSC), the CFOI is a comprehensive data-gathering vehicle that combines several sources of quality information, namely workers' compensation records, news media, OSHA reports and death certificates. The BLS said that this data is used for improving workplace safety standards, enhancing training procedures and identifying new areas of research. The second method of statistic gathering is the BLS Survey of Occupational Injury and Illnesses (SOII). This survey is less thorough because it relies solely on employer surveys.

The NSC, which is a nonprofit organization focused on health and safety and has been active in the U.S. for more than 100 years, believes that the SOII is underestimating the national injury rates because of its reliance on employer data only.

In California, a multi-source study found 35,869 more cases of carpal tunnel syndrome than the government did.A multi-source study found that in California, there were 35,869 more cases of carpal tunnel syndrome than the government reported.

Secondary analysis of California workplace injuries
One study cited by the NSC was conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health, which found that data concerning amputation rates reported in the state of California had been underestimated by 80 percent. The SOII found only 1,390 amputation cases whereas the new study – which used doctors' reports, worker's compensation claims and health care facility data – found 6,862 work-related amputation cases. The SOII reported 3,720 cases of work-related carpal tunnel syndrome, whereas the more comprehensive study found 39,589.

These studies did not cover slip and fall injuries, but they may indicate a trend of underreported injuries. More research should be conducted to find out for certain if other injury categories are being identified and reported properly. If numbers of workplace injuries are being underestimated across the board, it could greatly affect how businesses conduct their safety training and assessment procedures.

"Work-related illnesses could take years to develop."

Work-related illness reporting
Outside of physical injuries, workers are sometimes at risk of becoming ill due to various factors at work sites. The CFOI tracks work-related illnesses that result in fatalities, but the SOII does not include a category for illnesses. In a report on this subject, John Ruser of the BLS wrote that work-related illnesses are difficult to report because they could take years to develop and may not be easily attributed to working conditions.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another reason for underreporting of work-related illnesses is that workers who feel insecure in their jobs may not be willing to say that their illnesses are directly related to working conditions. This suggests that more comfortable lines of communication between employer and employee could improve the process of reporting illnesses.

Employers should consider all of this information when benchmarking injury rates and when developing safety policy. Open communication between the government, employers and employees is a key way to improve injury and illness reporting.

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