Workplace Injury and Employer Retaliation

retaliationAccording to federal government reports, the rate of workplace injuries has fallen by 31% over the last 10 years.

However, that improvement may not exactly be the great news it appears to be if you ask the swelling ranks of workers who experience retaliation from their employers as a result of reporting their injuries in the first place.

More than one hundred federal and state cases involving retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim were tried last year, which represents a doubling of the number filed a decade earlier. Some labor law attorneys claim the increase has been a result of companies trying to dissuade workers from speaking up.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is cracking down on employers, claiming that too many never get reported. In 2012, OSHA ran an educational campaign to ensure that employers that federal law bars them from retaliating against employees for reporting injuries. It also employers understood it is not legal to offer bonuses and prizes for workplace safety practice if they are designed to discourage employees from reporting workplace injuries.

Jordan Barab, assistant secretary at OSHA states that “We don’t believe most accidents happen because workers are careless. They happen because there are unsafe conditions in the workplace.”

For private-sector businesses, the 2011 rates of injuries that involved missed workdays, job restrictions or reassignment of work duties declined to 1.8 for every 100 full-time workers; this is down from 2.6 in 100 back in 2003, according to federal data. Safety consultants say that OSHA’s stricter regulations, along with more emphasis on reducing hazards in the business community has facilitated that drop in the injury rate. In addition many states have passed legislation making it more difficult to qualify for workers’ compensation, which has lowered the number of claims as well.

A big boon from this decline is that average costs of workers’ compensation for every $100 of payroll expense has decreased from $2.67 in 1994 to $1.79 last year, according to economists at Rutgers University.

Reporting Workplace Injuries

Yet Democrats, workers’ advocates and union representatives have pushed back by demanding tougher standards, while pointing to research showing how federal statistics under-represent the real rates of injuries, in part because it depends on employers to document and report injuries, and because injuries and illnesses connected to chemical exposure develop over a longer period of time and so are not immediately apparent.  Finally, workers who have suffered a third party injury are not included in these calculations, although often times this can still occur on the job.

According to Margaret Seminario, safety director at the AFL-CIO explains that some employers put the blame for injuries on workers themselves, and even threaten them with being penalized. And with the troubling rates of unemployment and declining union influence, she says, there are many worker who are “afraid to report injuries.”

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a different perspective. Marc Freedman, the director of labor policy for this business organization, claims that “There are always going to be some small number of employers who may not do the right thing,” but that doesn’t mean it’s some widespread conspiracy to prevent reporting of injury.

Construction Site Injuries

Two years ago, a comprehensive study of work conditions at construction sites found that many construction site injuries were going unrecorded at some. A Duke University team interviewed more than 1,000 construction workers in the Chicago area, where less than half said work-related injuries were even reported in their place of work.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office survey health providers and found that 1 in 3 say they were asked by employers to provide treatment that wouldn’t require a formal injury report. For example, OSHA doesn’t require employers to report a minor injury like a burn treated with a bandage, but it does require documentation for burns treated with prescription cream.

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