OSHA Loses FOIA Workplace Safety Battle

August 4, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal judge has ordered the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to publicly disclose the names of companies with the worst safety records along with their injury rates.

The decision by US District Judge Shira Scheindlin came in a long-running dispute between OSHA and the New York Times over the newspaper’s 2002 Freedom of Information Act demand for the workplace safety data, the Associated Press reported. OSHA has 60 days to decide whether to appeal.

The Times sought a list of the 13,000 companies that OSHA had identified as having injury and illness rates greater than the national average as well as their scores, essentially providing a ranking of the most hazardous work places in America. The agency sent  letters to the affected employers notifying them that their rates were significantly elevated and encouraging them to reduce injuries.

OSHA officials have fought the move, arguing that the data should be kept confidential because competitors could use it to indirectly figure out the target company’s pay scales   The government also contended those companies and their addresses were available on OSHA’s Web site, and the newspaper could contact them to ask for their injury rates.

Scheindlin rejected that argument. “The court’s clerks expended considerable time searching OSHA’s Web site for these names and addresses, but were unable to locate them,” Scheindlin wrote in the ruling. “This is likely because OSHA’s Web site is extraordinarily difficult to navigate.”

Government officials in denying The Times’ request also argued it would have to get permission from all 13,000 employers before releasing the data. That would be too burdensome because it would require 30,290 staff hours, or about 15 years to respond, it said.

OSHA, in a  February news release , said the 13,000 work sites are listed alphabetically by state at http://www.osha.gov/as/opa/foia/hot_10.html . However, the list only includes states covered by the federal OSHA, and not those 21 states that operate their own government-approved efforts.