Do Safety-Based Incentives Prevent the Reporting of Workplace Injuries?


Work Injuries Go Unreported in California

In California, there are approximately three-quarters of a million workplace illnesses and injuries each year. When a worker becomes ill or injured at work, he or she is supposed to be provided with workers’ compensation benefits. The worker is supposed to report the injury to the employer, who in turn will provide insurance coverage for medical costs as well as disability benefits. Employers are supposed to keep records of and report workplace injuries to the Workers’ Compensation Information System (WCIS), explains a California personal injury lawyer.

Unfortunately, many workplace injuries are not properly reported. In fact, a 2008 report from the State of California Labor and Workforce Development Agency indicated that at least 25 percent of “lost-time” injuries were not reported. The agency also indicated that less conservative estimates suggested that as many as 40 percent of lost-time injuries were not properly reported to the WCIS system as required. Further, many cases of injury were reported to WCIS long after the end of the injury year.

In addition to providing general statistics on the underreporting of injuries, the agency also cited several high profile situations where employers had failed to report all of the workplace injuries that occurred. For example, they cited Southern California Edison Co., which received $35 million in safety bonuses based on its injury record when it later turned out that its reporting of worker injuries was incomplete.

This problem of underreporting, especially in situations where there are incentives for safety, is not limited to California. Other states also experience underreporting of anywhere from seven percent to thirty-five percent based on conservative estimates.

Recently, one study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine addressed one of the potential causes of under-reporting of injuries: safety incentives. While safety incentives are supposed to make worksites safer, the reality is that they may actually be compromising some of the protections provided to workers by creating a disincentive for the proper handling of workplace injuries.

Safety Incentives and Workplace Injuries

In the October 25, 2012 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, researchers published the results of research conducted via a survey of 1,020 carpenter apprentices in union training programs. The purpose of the survey was to assess how workplace safety incentives affected the reporting of work injuries among union carpenters.

Based on the findings, 58 percent of respondents to the survey indicated that there was some type of safety-based incentives in place in their workplace. The incentives might include bonus payments for a good safety record, as well as programs imposing adverse consequences when injuries occurred.

The survey showed that any type of safety based incentives created a disincentive to report workplace injuries. In fact, reporting of injuries on the worksite was 50 percent less prevalent in situations where workers were disciplined for injury experiences. Only 46.4 percent of the 1,020 workers surveyed indicated that work-related injuries were regularly reported when they occurred, and more than 30 percent said that injuries were rarely or never reported.

In other words, the safety incentives were not necessarily resulting in fewer injuries but instead resulted in fewer reported injuries. Peer pressure, fear of reprisal and employer pressure not to report injuries play a role in suppressing the reporting of workplace injuries, as workers and employers wish to obtain bonuses or avoid punishment.

Unfortunately, when injuries are not reported, workers may not get the full measure of protections available from workers’ compensation. While a worker’s medical costs and expenses may be covered under his or her health insurance, there may be additional costs and co-pays that would not be assessed to the worker under workers’ compensation. Further, employers may have less incentive to create safer workplaces if they get away with having fewer injuries reported, and workers may not receive the disability coverage they need if their injuries are serious.

This is a significant problem and steps must be taken to ensure that workers in California know they can report their work injuries without fear of reprisal.

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