Companies flagrantly flout Labor Department rules to report workplace injuries
More than 100,000 U.S. workplaces required to submit injury and illness records flouted a new federal requirement to electronically submit their logs, keeping dangerous employers cloaked in secrecy.
Only about 60% of the establishments expected to submit 2016 data to OSHA responded, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The next two years were no better. OSHA received 2017 and 2018 data from less than half of the roughly 463,000 workplaces required to report in each of those years, according to statements made by a top agency official in court filings.
The poor compliance rate by employers surfaced in court documents filed by OSHA in response to a lawsuit brought by the public interest group Public Citizen after the agency refused to release electronic injury and illness records. Reveal filed a parallel suit challenging the government’s refusal to release the injury logs, known as Form 300As, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. A federal judge sided with Reveal and the 2016 records were released last week.
Establishments with 250 or more employees and workplaces in high-risk industries with 20 or more workers, such as agriculture and construction, are required to submit the Form 300A, which summarizes how many people were injured or killed on the job each year.
OSHA had intended to use the information to help prioritize its investigations. With just 862 federal inspectors covering millions of workplaces as of Jan. 1, OSHA has sought to focus its resources on the most dangerous industries and workplaces. The agency also announced in 2016 that it would post the data on its public website.
Just a tiny fraction of employers who failed to submit these reports have been penalized. As of Aug. 16, OSHA had issued only 259 citations carrying total fines of $127,000 to employers who did not send in their electronic injury logs. That’s an average penalty of less than $500 per employer. Only 30 of these penalties were imposed on large employers with at least 250 workers, a Labor Department spokesperson told Reveal.
After Donald Trump was elected president, OSHA officials said that while employers still had to report the information, the data would not be made public.
That changed last week. The U.S. Department of Labor released more than 237,000 injury and illness records from U.S. workplaces in response to the lawsuit brought by Reveal, a blow to government secrecy that allows the public to identify some of the nation’s most hazardous companies.
“This court decision is a game-changer,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA under President Barack Obama and is now a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Public disclosure on injury rates will reshape how employers, workers and the public think about the social cost of the goods and services we consume.”
A Reveal analysis of the roughly 60,000 company names in the 2016 data found that even some Fortune 500 companies neglected to fully report their data. McDonald’s and Home Depot appeared to be missing entirely, while only one establishment with 58 employees appeared for Boeing, one of the nation’s top federal contractors. Representatives for McDonald’s, Home Depot and Boeing did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But even the spotty reporting did reveal some companies with high injury rates for their sectors. Ford Motor Co. reported injury and illness rates at two establishments that were 80% higher than the rate reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for automobile manufacturers overall. One even reported a death. A Ford spokesperson did not immediately respond to queries, requesting additional time to review the data.
Injury and illness rates at facilities of other large companies – such as Dollar Tree, Southwest Airlines and Eli Lilly – were about twice the industry rates in some sectors, as reflected in their injury and illness reports. Dollar Tree’s rates were elevated, for example, in its warehouses, while Eli Lilly’s rates were elevated in its biological manufacturing facilities.
“A safe workplace for our associates is our highest priority,” Kayleigh Painter, a Dollar Tree spokesperson, said in an e-mail. “We are focused on maintaining a safe environment that complies with all health and safety regulations at our facilities.”
In response to questions about Southwest Airlines’ injury and illness cases in 2016, Brian Parrish, a company spokesperson, said in an e-mail: “The safety of our employees and customers is always the uncompromising priority at Southwest Airlines and a responsibility that we take very seriously. Since 2016, the Southwest Team has worked together to achieve a significant decrease in the number of annual injuries, and the airline is now pleased to be posting the lowest injury rates in our recent history – a downward trend demonstrated in the numbers reported to OSHA over the past several years.”
A spokesperson for Eli Lilly did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beginning with 2019 data, employers were required to submit their 300As with employer identification numbers, unique numbers assigned to each company or organization that will allow OSHA to view company performance as a whole.
But the data released to Reveal was collected between 2017 and 2018 and lacks unique numbers. In addition, the company names associated with each establishment are inconsistent in the 300As – misspelled or abbreviated differently – or missing entirely.
“If OSHA doesn’t know the connection between different workplaces, if they have the same owner, it makes it difficult for OSHA to follow up at other facilities owned by the same company,” Michaels said.