Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Examining Evidence on Whether BLS Undercounts Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Examining Evidence on Whether BLS Undercounts Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

Article excerpt

The BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses offers many advantages over other data systems, and BLS has been working on improvements to increase its accuracy and scope; nevertheless, there is a debate about whether the survey undercounts injuries and illnesses to any significant extent

The BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII or Survey) has come under criticism for undercounting the number of injury and illness incidents in the workplace. Estimates of the undercount range widely from 20 percent to 70 percent of all cases in some research. However, other research and analysis concludes that the size of the undercount is small. This article summarizes and critiques some of these studies and describes BLS efforts to better understand and address the undercount issue.

SOII produces annual estimates of counts and rates (number of cases per worker) of new workplace injuries and illnesses. The survey data are provided by responding employers, who draw information from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) logs and supplementary materials maintained by employers throughout the year. SOII is separate from other systems for recording workplace injuries and illnesses, (hereinafter referred to as "data systems") including workers' compensation, trauma registries and other administrative and survey data sources.

Four dimensions of a potential undercount that can be identified are the failure to count

1. most occupational illnesses that have a long latency period;

2. occupational injuries and illnesses incurred by out-of-scope workers (public-sector workers, the self-employed, and workers in households and on small farms);

3. some occupational injuries and illnesses that are reported in other data systems such as workers' compensation; and

4. some occupational injuries and illnesses that are not reported in any data system.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics takes the allegations of underreporting seriously and has instituted a number of activities to understand and, where possible, address the issue. First, in 2007 BLS conducted a quality assurance survey which indicated that SOII data collection processes did not result in an undercount along any of the four dimensions listed earlier. Second, BLS is extending the scope of SOII to include all public-sector workers.

Third, BLS has instituted a program of research to examine and extend previous research into the undercount. The aim is to determine whether certain types of cases and respondents display greater evidence of apparent undercounting and to identify the factors that might be responsible for the undercount findings.

The latter factors include legitimate differences among data systems and methodological aspects of undercount research that might provide biased estimates of the SOII undercount. Fourth, BLS is undertaking focused interviews of employers to learn about decisions made to report injuries and illnesses on OSHA logs and to other data systems. Finally, BLS is exploring partnerships with other organizations, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to research the use of alternative data sources to complement the data available from SOII.

Although BLS will make progress in addressing the undercount issue, it must be conceded that some aspects of this issue cannot be addressed within the framework of the BLS Survey. Estimating the number of long-latent occupational illnesses is not possible with an employer-based recording mechanism. Self-employed, household and small-farm workers remain outside the scope of SOII because they are not part of the SOII sample frame nor are they covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. In addition, there are a variety of incentives that affect the reporting of workplace injuries and illness to SOII and other data systems. These incentives are outside of BLS control. …

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