Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cooking The Books: Underreporting Worker Injuries at the San Francisco Bay Bridge: Part I

Note: The entire four-part series can be read here.

Confined Space has often covered stories of chronic undercounting of workplace injuries and illnesses by employers, as well as violations OSHA’s recordkeeping rules. More specifically we've covered the systematic falsification of injuries and illness numbers by KFM – Kiewit Pacific/FCI Constructors/Manson Construction, A Joint Venture, on the project to rebuild the eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The consortium had never missed a chance to brag about worksite injury and illness rates that they claimed were one-fourth to one-third those of other California bridge builders -- until Cal/OSHA and the Tribune documented the real story based on interviews with two dozen Bay Bridge workers – that KFM had “cooked the books” on injury rates.

But now, thanks to KFM worker interviews from Cal/OSHA's casefiles, we're able to present for the first time a series of posts that paint a detailed and vivid picture of exactly how KFM used a sophisticated combination of strategies to “cook the books” of worker injuries and illnesses.

KFM’s cookbook includes:
  1. cash incentives to workers and supervisors who do not report injuries;
  2. reprisals and threats of reprisals against those employees who do report injuries;
  3. selection and use of employer-friendly occupational health clinics and workers comp insurance administrators;
  4. strict limits on the activities of contract industrial hygiene consultants; and, ultimately,
  5. a secretive management committee which decides whether reported injuries and illnesses are legitimate and recordable.

But the problem is much bigger than KFM. The consortium's deliberate under-recording of workplace injures and illnesses is part of a growing national problem that has resulted in repeated “willful” citations by Federal OSHA and has important adverse impacts on hazard prevention by employers, resource allocation by government agencies, and the accuracy of safety in the nation’s workplaces. The KFM story also presents a searing indictment of controversial “behavioral safety” programs which punish workers for injuries and reward workers for not reporting injuries or unsafe conditions.


Since 2004, the Oakland Tribune has run an extended, award-winning series of articles about safety and production problems at the bridge, and has posted the Cal/OSHA citations and key witness testimony on its website. In August 2006, the newspaper ran another series of articles on the specifics of KFM’s injury reporting suppression program.

In June 2006, Cal/OSHA issued “willful” citations against KFM for deliberately failing to record at least 13 worker injuries at the bridge, as well as two more citations for failing to investigate reported accidents and failing to record injuries within the time period set by law. The citations followed a report by the California Bureau of State Audits that accused the agency of not having procedures necessary to verify the accuracy of injury and illness reporting, and noting that the Cal/OSHA's compliance assistance/partnership approach with the company made it even more difficult to uncover unsafe conditions and faulty reporting.

KFM was accused of violating laws that require employers to record on an “OSHA Log 300” all injuries and illnesses on the job that result in death, days away from work, restricted work, medical treatment beyond first aid, or loss of consciousness.

Cal/OSHA considered KFM’s violations “willful” because evidence showed

that the employer committed an intentional and knowing (as contrasted with inadvertent) violation and the employer is conscious of the fact that what he is doing constitutes a violation of a safety law.
KFM had originally claimed that it had zero lost work days and zero restricted work days for more than 1 million man-hours of work at the Bay Bridge in 2004. KFM’s recorded injury rate was 1.47 injuries per 100 workers, as compared to another major bridge project in the San Francisco Bay, which had a rate of 12.43 injuries per 100 workers. But some things in life are just “too good to be true.”

As a result of two state investigations in 2005 – one by Cal/OSHA and one by the Bureau of State Audits (BSA) – KFM revised its 2004 Log 300 to add one “newly recognized” case with 14 days away from work. However, the consortium claims the 13 cases identified by Cal/OSHA were either fraudulent or exempted under Log 300 regulations.

Cooking the Books: The Carrot

The centerpiece of KFM’s strategy to suppress reporting of worker injury and illnesses is its “Safety Incentive Programs” designed to
to motivate employee and supervisory safety performance to achieve zero injury results in an environmental that sustains teamwork, open communication, and total involvement.
Monetary incentives are given to every level of employee – hourly, foremen, supervisors and managers – for meeting quality and completion timeline goals, but only if no Log 300 recordable injuries are reported. Any reported injury or illness that is “Log 300 recordable” loses the worker, his or her crew, the foreman, other supervisors and managers the monetary bonus.

The monetary incentives for workers as a crew and for foremen are substantial:
  • The “Pile Head Welding Incentive Plan” provided the individual crew members with $200, $400 or $600 in bonuses over every 26-36 day period – only if there is “no recordable accident” – and crew foremen “receive double the award amount.” The crews consisted of 8 employees – 1 foremen and 7 welders and helpers;

  • The “Pier 10W – 7 W Access Casing Incentive Plan” provided – only with “no reportable/recordable accident” – “possible incentive for entire crew achieving target is $3,150 ($5,544 total pay off with gross up) with maximum award incentive for entire crew can be $6,750 ($11,880 total pay with gross up).” The crews consisted of 6 employees – 1 foreman, 4 carpenters and 1 laborer);

  • The “Pier 9W-7W Pier Column Formwork Incentive Plan” provided – only with “no reportable/recordable accidents” – “maximum award incentive for entire crew is $6,400 ($11,264 total payoff with gross up).” The crews consisted of 13 employees – 3 foremen, 8 carpenters and 2 laborers;

  • The “Pier 10W – 7W Misc. Metal & Set Casing Pre-Cast Slab Incentive Plan” provided – only with “no reportable/recordable accidents” – “maximum award incentive for entire crew is $3063.” The crews consisted of 2 employees – 1 foreman and 1 ironworker journeyman;

  • The “Skyway Concrete Placement Incentive Plan,” whose “approximate maximum award for entire crew is $37,560,” clearly stated “any reportable accidents will eliminate the entire crew for the current award period. Any recordable accidents will eliminate the entire crew for a minimum of two award periods and up to elimination from the entire program as determined by the Job Superintendent.” The crews consisted of 11 employees – 2 foremen, 7 laborers and 2 masons.
General foreman, superintendents, craft superintendents, job superintendents and project managers also received monetary awards and “merit cards” essential for salary increases and individual career advancement. The time periods for these awards were determined by the collective number of hours worked by all crews under the salaried employee’s supervision, ranging from 5,000 to 100,000 hours of work.

As always, the awards were dependent on no injuries or illnesses being reported. Section 11 of KFM’s 2004 Safety Plan on the “Recognition and Rewards Program” stated:
Employees will forfeit their recognition/reward on a crew-by-crew basis for any OSHA recordable injury or when directly involved in a general liability accident. When an employee suffers a restricted duty or lost-time accident case, the entire job will forfeit the recognition/reward for the current period.”(emphasis added)
Rewards for supervisors and managers, depending on the number of accident-free hours worked, ranged from a “Merit Care and $100” to a “Merit Card and $3,000,” with a variety of gifts along the way including an “engraved billfold,” “engraved watch,” “trip not to exceed $2,500,” and a “gift decided by the District Safety Manager.”

Welders told Cal/OSHA that during the first six months of the incentive plan, from November 2003 to June 2004, they received their monthly $200-$600 incentive awards in the form of crisp, new $100 bills tucked neatly inside their pay envelopes.

But any “OSHA recordable injury” resulted in everyone up the chain losing their cash incentive, and perhaps not just for the current bonus period but for future award periods as well. Thus the cash incentive plan was self-policing – no worker wanted to lose their own cash bonus, or make their foreman, general foreman, superintendents and project managers lose their bonus money.

Pile excavation crew foreman Arne Paulson told Cal/OSHA:
It was known by everyone not to report any injuries because that would mean no BBQ, no tool prizes, no tool box prizes. Everyone would know who ‘lost’ the prizes for the crew, so everyone was terrified to report anything.
Welder David Dixon reported to Cal/OSHA that supervisors “downplayed reporting of accidents. If you reported an injury, ‘you are hurting the team’ or ‘you are screwing the crew.’”

Another welder, Mario Armani, said the cash
bonus program keeps guys away from reporting accidents, many injuries are not reported, many employees would clean out their own eyes [of metal slivers from grinding] or have their co-workers do it.
According to the Cal/OSHA case file, an injured welder, David Laniohan, did not report his injury on the daily time card so as to stay in the good graces of the foreman,
because no foreman wants to have a ‘yes’ answer [time card asks whether an injury occurred that day]. The foremen get bonuses for no injuries. There is a general pressure not to say ‘yes’
Paulson told Cal/OSHA that as a foreman,
whenever I tried to report an injury in the crew, I could not get anyone (superintendent or manager) to sign the form…salaried employees received bonuses for production, which also include safety goals, so any reported injuries mean no bonus.
Paulson himself was injured on the job, but for months was literally carried by co-workers onto the tug boats going out to the work barges to do paperwork in a make-shift office so that there was no “lost time” or “restricted work” duties to record. “The whole reason they were carrying me out to the barge was to avoid putting my injury on the Log 300,” Paulson told Cal/OSHA.

Tomorrow: Part II -- Cooking the Books: The Stick and The Doctor