Business

House committee to query OSHA on audits

Federal and state workplace safety regulators tout falling injury and illness rates as proof they are doing a good job protecting U.S. workers.

But N.C. regulators rarely check to see if the number of injuries being reported are accurate. S.C. regulators haven't looked to see if companies are reporting honestly since January 2000, an Observer analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data has found.

Carolinas' regulators say they believe companies are accurately reporting workplace injuries and illnesses.

Kevin Beauregard, assistant deputy commissioner of the N.C. Department of Labor, said inspectors do occasional recordkeeping audits, looking at a company's injury logs and what they reported to regulators to see if its correct. The number of recordkeeping audits done in N.C. has fallen to 57 last year from 252 in 2000.

Just how well OSHA is doing to ensure U.S. injury and illness rates are accurate will be questioned today, when the House Education and Labor Committee examines what it calls “the failure” of OSHA to collect accurate statistics on injuries and illnesses.

The hearing was prompted by the Observer's series “The Cruelest Cuts,” which in February documented how one N.C. poultry giant has masked the extent of injuries inside its plants.

As an example, a sampling of workers in neighborhoods surrounding House of Raeford Farms' biggest Carolinas processing plants, the Observer confirmed 31 injuries serious enough to be recorded for regulators. In 12 of those cases, the injuries didn't show up on logs, violating the law, according to OSHA recordkeeping expert Bob Whitmore.

House of Raeford officials said they follow OSHA rules for recording injuries and are unaware of any work-related injuries being excluded from their logs.

“We value our employees and strive to treat them in a fair and respectful manner at all times,” the company said in a statement.

The hearing will examine all industries, including poultry, because “it's a serious problem that not only affects workers' safety but also undermines our ability to assess OSHA's effectiveness,” said Aaron Albright, a committee spokesman.

Whitmore, who has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recordkeeping system since 1988, is expected to testify. Whitmore, who has criticized his agency for failing to do more to uncover and punish underreporting, is on paid administrative leave and will testify as a private citizen, not as an OSHA official.

Falling injury and illness rates “make everyone except the worker look good,” Whitmore said in an interview. Regulators take credit for reducing workplace accidents and companies can boast of improved safety records, he said, so there's little incentive to scrutinize the rates' accuracy.

“Congress needs to realize that the numbers being presented are not accurate numbers,” he said. “The agency has intentionally ignored the quality (of data) because they are evaluated on these numbers.”

Whitmore said he plans to tell lawmakers what he thinks OSHA can do to fix the situation.

Staff writers Lisa Zagaroli and Ames Alexander contributed.

Federal and state workplace safety regulators tout falling injury and illness rates as proof they are doing a good job protecting U.S. workers.

But N.C. regulators rarely check to see if the number of injuries being reported are accurate. S.C. regulators haven't looked to see if companies are reporting honestly since January 2000, an Observer analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data has found.

Carolinas' regulators say they believe companies are accurately reporting workplace injuries and illnesses.

Kevin Beauregard, assistant deputy commissioner of the N.C. Department of Labor, said inspectors do occasional recordkeeping audits, looking at a company's injury logs and what they reported to regulators to see if its correct. The number of recordkeeping audits done in N.C. has fallen to 57 last year from 252 in 2000.

Just how well OSHA is doing to ensure U.S. injury and illness rates are accurate will be questioned today, when the House Education and Labor Committee examines what it calls “the failure” of OSHA to collect accurate statistics on injuries and illnesses.

The hearing was prompted by the Observer's series “The Cruelest Cuts,” which in February documented how one N.C. poultry giant has masked the extent of injuries inside its plants.

As an example, a sampling of workers in neighborhoods surrounding House of Raeford Farms' biggest Carolinas processing plants, the Observer confirmed 31 injuries serious enough to be recorded for regulators. In 12 of those cases, the injuries didn't show up on logs, violating the law, according to OSHA recordkeeping expert Bob Whitmore.

House of Raeford officials said they follow OSHA rules for recording injuries and are unaware of any work-related injuries being excluded from their logs.

“We value our employees and strive to treat them in a fair and respectful manner at all times,” the company said in a statement.

The hearing will examine all industries, including poultry, because “it's a serious problem that not only affects workers' safety but also undermines our ability to assess OSHA's effectiveness,” said Aaron Albright, a committee spokesman.

Whitmore, who has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recordkeeping system since 1988, is expected to testify. Whitmore, who has criticized his agency for failing to do more to uncover and punish underreporting, is on paid administrative leave and will testify as a private citizen, not as an OSHA official.

Falling injury and illness rates “make everyone except the worker look good,” Whitmore said in an interview. Regulators take credit for reducing workplace accidents and companies can boast of improved safety records, he said, so there's little incentive to scrutinize the rates' accuracy.

“Congress needs to realize that the numbers being presented are not accurate numbers,” he said. “The agency has intentionally ignored the quality (of data) because they are evaluated on these numbers.”

Whitmore said he plans to tell lawmakers what he thinks OSHA can do to fix the situation.

Staff writers Lisa Zagaroli and Ames Alexander contributed.

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