OSHA Will Put Workplace Safety Data Online as ‘Nudge’ to Employers

Starting in January, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will require employers to notify the government within 24 hours every time someone loses an eye, suffers an amputation, or gets admitted to the hospital with an injury sustained at work. The agency estimates that tens of thousands of injuries go unreported. “Workplace injuries and fatalities are absolutely preventable,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in early September. “These new requirements will help OSHA focus its resources and hold employers accountable for preventing them.”

The rule replaces regulations that require companies to report only incidents that result in three or more hospitalizations—“catastrophes,” in agency parlance. (Workplace deaths will still have to be reported within 8 hours.) OSHA head David Michaels, an assistant secretary in the Department of Labor, announced on Sept. 11 that the injury data will be made public on OSHA’s website.

The site already includes information on worker fatalities and catastrophes. The hope, Michaels says, is that additional information will embarrass companies into being more careful. “We believe that the possibility of public reporting of serious injuries will encourage—or, in the behavioral economics term, nudge—employers to take steps to prevent injuries so they’re not seen as unsafe places to work,” says Michaels. “After all, if you had a choice of applying for a job at a place where a worker had just lost a hand, vs. one where no amputation has occurred, which would you choose?”

OSHA is one of several federal agencies taking the name-and-shame approach. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is considering a plan to begin online posting of first-person narratives culled from consumer complaints about banks, credit card companies, and payday lenders. Other agencies already put recall and complaint information online, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. OSHA’s smaller sibling agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, lists on its website workplace incidents like fires that could have harmed someone but didn’t.

The idea is that people increasingly accustomed to looking up product reviews onAmazon.com (AMZN) and restaurant reviews on Yelp (YELP) might do the same when they choose an employer, car, or credit card company. “Exposing problems early can help other consumers avoid similar problems before they become victims, too,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in July. “The market could react to problems as they occur, not years later.”

The websites also offer added accountability without adding staff. Since 1981, OSHA has shed health and safety inspectors to cut costs while the number of U.S. employers has doubled, according to the Center for Effective Government. A report from the group last year estimated that at current staffing levels, it would take federal OSHA inspectors 131 years to visit every U.S. workplace.

Business groups contend OSHA’s approach will add to the burdens faced by businesses without doing anything to help workers. The reporting requirements will “generate much traffic to OSHA that I don’t think they’re going to have any real use for,” says Marc Freedman, who directs labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A rule proposed last year would require some employers, including those in the construction industry, to send logs of on-the-job injuries and illnesses to the agency. (Illnesses employers must track include work-related sicknesses such as heatstroke or respiratory infections, but not colds or flus.) The data would be included in a searchable database. “OSHA simply cannot demonstrate that this proposed rule will result in fewer injuries and illnesses,” Geoffrey Burr, vice president of government affairs for the Associated Builders & Contractors, a trade group, wrote to OSHA’s Michaels earlier this year.

“If you don’t have the agency out there, you can at least have the press or individuals out there watchdogging,” says Celeste Monforton, environmental and occupational health lecturer at George Washington University and a former legislative analyst for OSHA. “At a minimum, the public deserves to have information that the government collects on how dangerous a particular workplace might be.”