Over the past decade, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has reported a steady decline in the number of reported workplace injuries and illnesses in the U.S. Initially, the agency attributed this drop to the decline in construction and manufacturing that followed the financial crisis and recession in 2008-09. However in recent years, the decline has continued, even in the face of increased employment and economic activity nationwide.
In October, OSHA released statistics for 2015 showing that workplace injuries and illnesses dropped by 48,000 from 2014 to approximately 2.9 million. Total recordable cases and the rate of cases involving days missed from work also declined in 2015. The decrease occurred over a range of business types.
Why are workplace injuries decreasing, and how will this information affect future OSHA enforcement policies? Manufacturing and goods-producing industries continue to experience injury rates slightly above their percentage of the total workforce, but the shift to more employees in service businesses does not appear to explain the decrease. The decline may be attributed to a combination of better employer safety practices, along with automation and other technical innovations that have removed workers from exposure to certain workplace hazards.
In recent years, OSHA has expressed its belief that employers continue to underreport workplace injuries and illnesses, resulting in rates that understate their actual experience. Even if this is accurate, it does not explain why the reported injury rate continues to decline. OSHA appears hesitant to conclude that employers are simply doing a better job managing employee exposure to workplace hazards. Such a conclusion would logically require the agency to reconsider whether increased general enforcement policies and penalties are necessary if current efforts are succeeding.