Since publishing its Final Recordkeeping Rule, titled – Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses- to the Federal Register on May 12, 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has moved forward with its plans to develop an electronic tracking system capable of surveilling work-related injuries and illnesses. As part of this initiative, the Administration is sponsoring a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on ways to improve worker injury and illness surveillance efforts through more coordinated and cost-effective mechanisms for collecting, compiling, and analyzing injury and illness data.

To conduct the study, NAS organized the Smarter OSH Surveillance Committee, which held its first public meeting- titled Developing a Smarter National Surveillance System for Occupational Safety and Health in the 21st Century, on Thursday, June 16, 2016. During the Committee’s orientation meeting, a variety of speakers presented on the strengths and limitations of the existing occupational safety and health surveillance approach. Committee members were then given an opportunity to ask the presenters questions about ways in which the current surveillance system could be improved. One of the speakers, Assistant Secretary of Labor, David Michaels, Ph.D., provided an overview of the injury and illness surveillance system under current federal recordkeeping regulations. Dr. Michaels also indicated that OSHA intends to rely heavily on the new electronic reporting framework provided in the Final Recordkeeping Rule to identify and respond to workplace safety trends.

David Sarvadi also provided his personal opinions at the Committee meeting in A Perspective on Workplace Safety and Health Issues. He summarized a few of the key limitations in the current occupational safety and health surveillance system as a result of OSHA’s Final Recordkeeping Rule. Reacting to the notion that there is widespread underreporting of injuries and illnesses, Mr. Sarvadi questioned whether the relative cost of obtaining more data would change the conclusions that OSHA’s current recordkeeping data provide. He explained that OSHA’s recordkeeping criteria remain difficult for employers to apply and that the new electronic reporting obligations will require employers to invest significant time and resources into transferring existing data into the new OSHA system, a cost that was largely ignored by OSHA in its rulemaking. He also challenged the asserted need for increased electronic reporting requirements to determine trends in workplace safety by pointing out that substantial statistically reliable information is already available to show significant trends in workplace safety by industry. He further emphasized that even in today’s connected world, the initial incident report is most often on paper, such that one area the committee could explore is how to capture injury and illness information electronically in the first instance.

Accordingly, he said, to improve workplace safety, we need to better understand the essential characteristics of workplace accidents, which will in turn, help us find ways to better prevent these incidents from occurring. One way this could be accomplished is by developing studies to look at specific categories of injuries and illnesses, such as back injuries and accidents caused by slips, trips, and falls, and identifying key factors that lead to their occurrence. Having experts, with sufficient training and experience in epidemiology, toxicology, and accident reconstruction, examine these trends in more depth would, in the long run, be far more cost effective and useful for preventing workplace accidents than requiring more detailed injury and illness reporting.