OSHA goes after companies for discouraging workers from reporting injuries

First, the good news: According to the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the number of reported workplace injuries dropped by more than 30 percent over the last 10 years.

Now the bad news: OSHA believes a big reason for the decline in reported injuries is that workers are becoming afraid that they’ll be retaliated against if they report them.

Of course, under federal law, it’s illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for reporting injuries, and it’s also illegal for them to reward employees in return for not reporting injuries.

But OSHA believes workers are feeling the pressure anyway.

Recently, Duke University medical professors conducted a survey of more than 1,000 carpenters in the Midwest, and found that less than half believed that most injuries in their workplaces were being reported.

In one recent case, OSHA went after the Union Pacific Railroad for firing a train conductor with more than 30 years of glowing reviews under his belt. The conductor had reported that a locomotive engineer injured his elbow when he bumped it against a steel armrest that was missing the required padding. OSHA determined that this was a retaliatory firing, and ordered the railroad to pay $390,000 in damages.

But encouraging workers not to report injuries can also take more subtle forms. For instance, many companies have workplace safety programs that offer incentives for reduced injuries. While these can be a good idea in many respects, they can also create an atmosphere of peer pressure that discourages the reporting of accidents.

Recently, a major hotel operator adopted a “Super Safety Bingo” program in which employees at various locations competed for prizes, including a new car. Under the rules of the competition, if someone was injured at one of the hotels in the chain, employees at that location were eliminated from the contest.

No one complained, and the company has since dropped the program. But it’s not hard to see how a competition like this one could raise suspicions that an employer was subtly trying to encourage workers not to report injuries.