This article by Timothy W. Emery, Esq., a partner with Emery Reddy, PLLC, Attorneys at Law. www.emeryeddy.com
A new and alarming report by the auditing arm of Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), states that many employers do not report workplace injuries and illnesses. Employers, concerned with losing contracts and increases to their workers’ compensation and L&I costs, are increasingly concealing workplace injuries or pressuring employees not to report injuries.
The GAO states that 53 percent of health practitioners report experiences in which company officials pressure them to downplay an injury or illness; 47 percent experience this pressure from co-workers. In one documented case, a manager took an injured worker to a number of doctors until the manager found one willing to certify the injury as treatable with first aid alone, thus making it an injury that did not require reporting.
The report also questioned whether workers were forced to conceal their job-related injuries due to fear of employer retaliation. According to Senator Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Employment & Workplace Safety, “this report confirms that when it comes to the documenting of workplace injuries, we can’t just take employers at their word.” As she goes on to conclude, “the system, to this point, has been all too easy to game.”
The report discussed other factors that lead to under-reporting, such as the fear that an injury, once reported, might negatively affect an employee’s co-workers. This fear is justified when an employer’s bonus structure is specifically designed to create an atmosphere of peer-pressure for under-reporting injuries. One example of this structure is the practice of rewarding all employees with bonuses when few injuries are reported, and withdrawing bonuses when injuries are reported. Employers often refer to these programs as “Safety Incentive Programs,” but they essentailly act as deterrents for the reporting of real injuries, especially when an injured worker knows that her injury will cause all employees to lose their bonuses.
“The widespread underreporting so clearly documented in this report is undermining the health and safety of American workers,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. “If we don’t know the full extent of the workplace hazards workers face, we cannot fully address these risks.”
Washington workers can minimize these risks by understanding their right to report injuries free from the threat of employer retaliation. The Workers’ Compensation system currently in place under Title 51 is a “no fault” system, which means that the only relevant issues are whether the worker is injured (as evidenced by the employee’s primary treating physician), and whether the injury actually occurred at work. Additionally, remedies exist for an injured worker when the employer retaliates as a result of the worker reporting the injury. Such remedies include attorney’s fees which may be awardable when the retaliation is deemed to be discriminatory.
Emery Reddy is located on the Internet at www.emeryreddy.com and can be contacted via telephone at (206) 442-9106.
Emery Reddy represents plaintiffs in L & I, employment and injury matters. The firm and its attorneys are trusted advocates for Washington workers who experience job related injuries.