Workplace safety advocates have contended for years that bosses often cheat when it comes to their obligation to report on-the-job injuries. Academic researchers also have found extensive evidence that, whether due to deliberate fudging or other reasons, many serious work injuries are never properly disclosed to authorities.

The result, safety advocates and regulators say, is that government officials have bad information to go on when they try to figure out what types of workplaces have the worst injury problems and need their attention most.

When the Obama administration brought in new leadership at the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, cracking down on the scofflaw employers was a key aim. Just over a year into a pilot program to target violators of reporting rules, however, the effort is taking criticism from across the political spectrum.

Citing the modest numbers of employer injury-recording violations turned up recently by OSHA, some critics complain that the agency hasn’t moved aggressively enough.

From the other end of the spectrum, critics argue that recent inspections demonstrate that injury under-reporting is a relatively rare problem. Baruch Fellner, a prominent management lawyer who specializes in OSHA issues, called it a case of the agency frittering away resources “looking for a conspiracy that does not exist.”

For their part, Labor Department officials remain convinced that the problem is real. They cite studies showing that injuries as serious as finger amputations often go unrecorded. And they have put themselves in the odd position of downplaying official statistics, based on information collected from employers, that ordinarily would make them look good: numbers showing a reduction in injuries in U.S. workplaces.

That posture was on full display two weeks ago when the Labor Department issued its annual report on nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in the private sector. The 2009 injury and illness rate was 3.6 cases per 100 full-time workers, down from a 3.9 rate the year before and the lowest level since the agency started keeping the records in their current format in 2003.

Yet Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis issued only a brief statement and, rather than trumpet progress in improving on-the-job safety,  pledged that OSHA “will continue to issue citations and penalties to employers that intentionally under-report workplace injuries.”

Just last week, OSHA cited a Lowe’s Home Centers distribution center in Rockford, Ill., for willful failure to log and report employee injuries, and proposed $182,000 in penalties.

Another case in point is Ohio-based AK Steel Corp. OSHA last month cited the company for, among other things, five “willful” violations of failing to report on-the-job injuries, and the agency proposed $53,000 in fines.

The company had won a string of safety awards in recent years, from industry groups as well as from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

Yet when federal OSHA inspectors examined AK Steel’s plant in Middletown, Ohio, they concluded that its safety performance wasn’t as good as the injury numbers suggested — and that workers may have been intimidated out of reporting their injuries to their bosses. Authorities said that managers’ bonuses were based, in part, on their willingness to discipline workers who report injuries.

OSHA’s chief, David Michaels, underlining his agency’s concern about employers’ using those and other incentives to discourage injury reporting, said in a news release: “If accurate records are not compiled because workers believe they will be fired or disciplined for reporting an injury, or supervisors fear they will lose their bonuses if workers report injuries, real safety is not being achieved.”

Alan McCoy, an AK Steel spokesman, called the assertion that managers were rewarded for discouraging workers to report injuries “an outright lie,” and said the company is contesting the citations.

The agency’s specific citations against AK Steel were narrowly focused, accusing the company of inaccurately recording such incidents as a broken jaw, a smashed finger and an accident in which a worker’s head was struck by a 150-pound valve.

OSHA announced a much larger case this August, proposing more than $1.2 million in penalties against Goodman Manufacturing Co., a producer of heating and air conditioning equipment in Houston. The agency accused the company of 83 “willful” violations for failing to record injuries and in some cases, providing information that was “grossly incorrect.”

Inspectors uncovered back, shoulder, wrist and eye injuries, among other impairments that required medical treatment. Goodman officials could not be reached for comment, but in August the company told the Houston Chronicle that the citations were  “paperwork issues” that did not involve employees being exposed to health or safety hazards. The citations are under appeal.

Those cases notwithstanding, critics note that OSHA’s results this year in snaring violators of injury-reporting rules appear mixed.

Through Sept. 10 of this year, in the 29 states under federal OSHA jurisdiction (the rest run their own job-safety programs), 1,320 record-keeping citations were issued, down from 1,481 the year before and 1,386 two years earlier. Fines totaled $2.69 million during the same period, up from $998,405 during the same period in 2009, although 45 percent of the total this year came from the Goodman case.

But OSHA is accused of everything from doing too little to making a big deal of a non-problem.

OSHA conducts about 40,000 inspections a year that typically include a check of the employer’s injury logs. The Recordkeeping National Emphasis Program, as the pilot initiative is called, will consist of just 300 inspections and is intended to find better ways to catch cheaters. Its investigations will be more extensive, and will include such steps as interviewing workers and checking medical records.

A group representing public workers, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, faulted OSHA for starting the initiative by targeting mostly small businesses, and overlooking high-hazard industries such as refineries and chemical plants.

“We’re basically halfway through the [Obama] administration and we haven’t made any progress on record-keeping,” said Jeff Ruch, the group’s executive director. “This is an incident of dashed expectations.”

Some state workplace safety officials have expressed mixed feelings, or worse, about the program. Len Welsh, head of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said the effort to collect better data on workplace injuries is worthwhile. Still, he added, “At a certain point you ask the question, ‘Is it better to spend time and resources gathering the information, or inspecting high-risk areas?”

Cherie Berry, North Carolina’s labor commissioner, was more pointed. Berry, a Republican who said she has “clear philosophical differences” with the Obama administration, called the program “an outrageous waste of taxpayer money” and said she would rather her state’s inspectors “be on the manufacturing floor abating hazards than sitting in a room shifting through volumes of documents.”

Jordan Barab, OSHA’s No. 2 official, countered that the initiative still is too new to draw conclusions.

Barab said some of the early inspections after the program was launched in October, 2009, did, in fact, find surprisingly low numbers of employers failing to report injuries. Those employers, he said, “weren’t cheating, they were actually doing a very good job, which was great news.”

Recently, however, the program has been revised to target larger companies and more manufacturing industries, where the problem may be more severe. “We certainly have found plenty of evidence that there are issues out there,” Barab said. “It’s really just a matter of making sure we’re focusing in the right places.”

For workplace safety advocates, the agency’s plan to press ahead is welcome news. “Things don’t turn around overnight,” said Peg Seminario, safety and health director of the AFL-CIO labor federation.

Jill Replogle of FairWarning contributed to this report.

Related Post:

Squishy Stats Cloud Job Safety Advance