Very little is known about the effects of programs in the construction industry that offer rewards for workers or their supervisors for improved safety records or that punish workers for reporting injuries. A new study sponsored by the Center for Construction Research and Training sheds some light on the subject.

Researchers Hester J. Lipscomb, Ph.D., and Douglas J. Myers, Sc.D., from the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Duke University Medical Center; James Nolan and Dennis Patterson of the Carpenters District Council of Great St. Louis and Vicinity; and Vince Sticca of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters conducted an anonymous survey of 1,020 carpenter apprentices in three union training programs to document the prevalence of their exposure to efforts to hinder injury reporting.

According to Lipscomb et al, 58 percent of the carpenters reported some safety incentive or negative consequence of work-related injuries on their current jobsite. Reporting of work-related injuries was 50 percent less prevalent when workers were disciplined for injury experiences. Researchers also found “considerable evidence of fear of reprisal for reporting injuries.” Worse yet, over 30 percent of the carpenters said injuries “were almost never or rarely reported,” said researchers.

Underreporting a “Huge Issue”

In an interview with EHS Today, Lipscomb called the potential underreporting of injuries “a huge issue” for the construction industry at large and stressed that while this study focused on union carpenters, the complex issues surrounding injury underreporting is by no means limited to this group. In fact, she applauded the unions for creating an environment that allowed these apprentice carpenters to candidly report their perceptions.

“I think that if we had the opportunity to study other, more vulnerable groups of construction workers, we’d probably find things are worse,” Lipscomb told EHS Today. “Coming from a union work force, where you’d think there’s more safety advocacy, drives the idea home really strongly.”

Even if workers understand they have the right to report injuries, subtle pressures in the workplace may discourage injury reporting. If employees anticipate possible discipline, termination or any other negative consequences, they may become reluctant to report.

The nature of construction work may compound the problem, Lipscomb added. Say a construction worker reports an injury or files a workers’ compensation claim and, once the current project completed, is not hired back for the next job. Whether the employee actually lost out on the job because he previously reported an injury or if he only believes this is the case makes little difference. “The effect is the same,” Lipscomb said. “It keeps workers from feeling they can safely report their injuries.”