Maine officials are opposing a planned federal requirement designed to make workplace safety data for individual employers available online, saying it could cause the release of embarrassing personal information.
The rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration would require more businesses to report their health and safety records electronically. Maine officials’ chief objection pertains to what the federal government ultimately would do with the information.
According to OSHA, the goal is to post injury and illness reports online for each employer, to help safety officials target industries that raise concerns and enable potential employees to review businesses’ safety records. The rule is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.
The reports would name the employers and list the number of illnesses and injuries in a given year, but personal information about employees would not be disclosed. Companies with 20 or fewer employees would be exempt.
“Public posting of workplace injury and illness information will nudge employers to better identify and eliminate hazards,” Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in remarks to the media explaining why OSHA wants to improve its tracking system. “Employers want to be seen as the top performers in their industry. Just as some corporations strive to demonstrate their commitment to reducing pollution, or using renewable energy, we believe that responsible employers will want to be recognized as leaders in safety.”
Michaels said the proposal carries a minimal cost because employers already collect the information. The only change is that employers would send the information to OSHA electronically.
OSHA now publishes workplace injury and illness “incidence rates” online for each state, but it does not list them by employer. Incidence rates represent the number of workplace injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers.
Maine’s rate in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, was 5.5 incidents per 100 workers, considerably higher than the national rate of 3.4 incidents per 100 workers.
Nationally, the industries with the highest incidence rates in 2012 were nursing (13.6), heavy construction and civil engineering (10.3), “goods producing” (10.2), and construction (10.2).
Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said Maine’s incidence rate is higher than average because its employers are more diligent about filling out OSHA surveys, not because its industries and employers are more dangerous.
“Maine is very proactive about filling out that form,” Rabinowitz said. “Other states tend to under-report their injuries.”
OSHA also publishes annual totals online for on-the-job fatalities in each state, but it does not identify where those workers were employed.
In 2012, 19 work-related deaths were reported in Maine, most of them involving vehicle crashes. The total for 2011 was 26 deaths, and in 2010 there were 20 work-related deaths reported.
OSHA hasn’t said how it would protect individual privacy with the records posted online, but Maine officials said steps such as blacking out names might not work for Maine businesses, most of which employ small numbers of workers.
“When there are only a few employees in a company or at a specific location, it can be easy to piece together the information to identify injured workers even though their names are not posted,” said Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette. “The proposal contains no assurances that enough personal information would be scrubbed from the records so that individuals would not be able to be identified. Posting this information online could create a potentially embarrassing or even hostile situation for the injured worker.”
Paquette said her department will submit an objection to the proposed rule before the public comment period closes Monday.
Gov. Paul LePage also lodged an objection, saying posting injury reports online could subject businesses and workers to ridicule.
“Posting information online to embarrass workers and employers who have had accidents is the wrong way to encourage workplace safety, especially when it can violate the privacy of an individual who is already suffering from a workplace accident,” LePage said in a prepared statement.
“Maine chooses to be a role model for others by incentivizing workplace safety rather than burdening employers with more regulation, and our track record stands for itself,” he said.
The state Department of Labor also said that more businesses may need to submit injury reports and safety data under the rules, although OSHA said the goal is to get more employers to file the information electronically, rather than increase reporting requirements or expand the number of businesses required to file reports.
Rabinowitz said the rule would change industry codes that determine what kind of reports a company must file. As an example, she said bakeries that sell baked goods in a store have been in an industry category in which businesses are not required to fill out some OSHA reports. The reclassification, she said, would put them into the manufacturing category, and require them to file more reports.
Rabinowitz said state officials are also concerned that the additional reporting requirement could violate federal laws on the release of patient information.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: