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He says his agency is at fault

Record-keeping chief says OSHA lets companies underreport injuries

KERRY HALL AND AMES ALEXANDER
Staff Writers

Bob Whitmore is doing what few career government employees dare -- publicly criticizing his own agency.

Whitmore, an expert in record-keeping requirements for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said OSHA is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer.

The true rate for some industries -- including poultry processors -- is likely two to three times higher than government numbers suggest, he said.

Whitmore is not authorized to speak for the government and is risking his job simply by talking to the Observer, he said.

"I want to hold people accountable that are abusing workers," he said. "It's as simple as that."

OSHA officials say they look for underreporting but rarely find it.

Whitmore has directed OSHA's record-keeping system since 1988. Early in his career, he said, OSHA looked closely at companies' injury and illness logs and issued big fines to businesses that underreported such incidents.

But by the 1990s, he said, industry groups and pro-business lawmakers were accusing OSHA of focusing on what they perceived as frivolous paperwork violations. Today, he said, the agency is conducting fewer inspections and issuing fewer fines, leaving businesses to police themselves.

The government, he said, has no clear picture of the hazards that lurk inside some of America's most dangerous manufacturers.

A leading manufacturers group contends the government figures are accurate. While underreporting occasionally happens, it's rare, said Hank Cox, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers.

In July, Whitmore was placed on paid administrative leave after a confrontation with a supervisor. He said the supervisor spit on him, so he stuck his foot in the man's door and threatened, "If you ever do that again, I'll kick your a--."

Whitmore has filed a complaint alleging a hostile workplace. As of this month, he was still on administrative leave.

The labor department declined to comment on Whitmore's status citing "privacy considerations."

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