More than 100,000 U.S. workplaces required to submit injury and illness records flouted a new federal requirement to electronically submit their logs, keeping dangerous employers cloaked in secrecy.
Only about 60% of the establishments expected to submit 2016 data to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration responded, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. The next two years were no better. OSHA received 2017 and 2018 data from less than half of the roughly 463,000 workplaces required to report in each of those years, according to statements made by a top agency official in court filings.
The poor compliance rate by employers surfaced in court documents filed by OSHA in response to a lawsuit brought by the public interest group Public Citizen after the agency refused to release electronic injury and illness records. Reveal filed a parallel suit challenging the government’s refusal to release the injury logs, known as Form 300As, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. A federal judge sided with Reveal and the 2016 records were released last week.
Establishments with 250 or more employees and workplaces in high-risk industries with 20 or more workers, such as agriculture and construction, are required to submit the Form 300A, which summarizes how many people were injured or killed on the job each year.
OSHA had intended to use the information to help prioritize its investigations. With just 862 federal inspectors covering millions of workplaces as of Jan. 1, OSHA has sought to focus its resources on the most dangerous industries and workplaces. The agency also announced in 2016 that it would post the data on its public website.
Just a tiny fraction of employers that failed to submit these reports have been penalized. As of Aug. 16, OSHA had issued only 259 citations carrying total fines of $127,000 to employers that did not send in their electronic injury logs. That’s an average penalty of less than $500 per employer. Only 30 of these penalties were imposed on large employers with at least 250 workers, a Labor Department spokesperson told Reveal.
The records are mandatory under an Obama-era rule that required companies to electronically submit injury and illness records, starting with 2016 data.
After Donald Trump was elected president, OSHA officials said that while employers still had to report the information, the data would not be made public.
That changed last week. The U.S. Department of Labor released more than 237,000 injury and illness records from U.S. workplaces in response to the lawsuit brought by Reveal, a blow to government secrecy that allows the public to identify some of the nation’s most hazardous companies.
Reveal went to court to challenge the federal government’s refusal to release the injury logs, which the nonprofit news organization requested in February 2018.
“This court decision is a game changer,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA under President Barack Obama and is now a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Public disclosure on injury rates will reshape how employers, workers and the public think about the social cost of the goods and services we consume.”
A Reveal analysis of the roughly 60,000 company names in the 2016 data found that even some Fortune 500 companies neglected to fully report their data. McDonald’s and The Home Depot appeared to be missing entirely, while only one establishment with 58 employees appeared for Boeing, one of the nation’s top federal contractors. Representatives for McDonald’s, The Home Depot and Boeing did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But even the spotty reporting did reveal some companies with high injury rates for their sectors. Ford Motor Co. reported injury and illness rates at two establishments that were 80% higher than the rate reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for automobile manufacturers overall. One even reported a death. A Ford spokesperson did not immediately respond to queries, requesting additional time to review the data.
Injury and illness rates at facilities of other large companies – such as retailer Dollar Tree Stores Inc., Southwest Airlines and pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Co. – were about twice the industry rates in some sectors reflected in their injury and illness reports. Dollar Tree’s rates were elevated, for example, in its warehouses, while Eli Lilly’s rates were elevated in its biological manufacturing facilities.
“A safe workplace for our associates is our highest priority,” Kayleigh Painter, a Dollar Tree spokesperson, said in an email. “We are focused on maintaining a safe environment that complies with all health and safety regulations at our facilities.”
In response to questions about Southwest Airlines’ injury and illness cases in 2016, Brian Parrish, a company spokesperson, said in an email: “The safety of our employees and customers is always the uncompromising priority at Southwest Airlines and a responsibility that we take very seriously. Since 2016, the Southwest Team has worked together to achieve a significant decrease in the number of annual injuries, and the airline is now pleased to be posting the lowest injury rates in our recent history – a downward trend demonstrated in the numbers reported to OSHA over the past several years.”
A spokesperson for Eli Lilly did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beginning with 2019 data, employers were required to submit their 300As with employer identification numbers, unique numbers assigned to each company or organization that will allow OSHA to view company performance as a whole.
But the data released to Reveal was collected between 2017 and 2018 and lacks unique numbers. In addition, the company names associated with each establishment are inconsistent in the 300As – misspelled or abbreviated differently – or missing entirely.
“If OSHA doesn’t know the connection between different workplaces, if they have the same owner, it makes it difficult for OSHA to follow up at other facilities owned by the same company,” Michaels said.
OSHA’s Form 300As have been critical to Reveal’s past reporting, though Reveal has had to obtain the records by other means, such as through labor unions and workers’ attorneys. Last year, Reveal collected injury records for some of Amazon’s warehouses through current and former employees and showed that the injury rates for these sites surpassed the industry average. Before that, Reveal combed through Tesla’s internal records and found some cases were missing from the company’s official logs – again, obtained from employees. Yet another Reveal investigation relied on injury records – obtained from a variety of sources, including workers and Freedom of Information Act requests – to show how a major shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy altered a power tool, ignoring the manufacturer’s warnings and creating a saw that company executives called “a Widow Maker” after it maimed dozens of workers.
Reveal won the public records suit in June when Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the federal Labor Department to release several months’ worth of the logs.
The government had denied Reveal’s request, citing an exemption in the law that shields government records collected for law enforcement purposes. After Reveal filed suit, Justice Department attorneys defending the case abandoned that argument. Instead, they asserted that the injury logs could not be disclosed because they were confidential business records.
But Ryu found that “the Form 300A information is both readily observable by and shared with employees, who have the right to make the information public.”
Rather than appeal, Justice Department lawyers complied with the court’s order and agreed to release the injury data to Reveal.
“OSHA reports have long been recognized as public information necessary for public health and safety – not confidential business information,” said D. Victoria Baranetsky, Reveal’s general counsel. “We are glad the court recognized that, too.”
Companies have been required to record injuries and illnesses for nearly 50 years. Some of that data is available on OSHA’s website. But that program ended in anticipation of the new reporting requirements launched under the Obama-era rule.
Reporter Will Evans contributed to this story. It was edited by Esther Kaplan and Soo Oh and copy edited by Nikki Frick.