Postal employee Vincent Baxter moves packages at the Indianapolis Mail Processing Annex in 2014. The Postal Service is fifth on a list of 25 industry groups reporting sever injuries in 2015. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Next time you order sliced turkey or ham at a supermarket or restaurant, make sure you also don’t get the butcher’s fingertip.

Shortly after a federal rule requiring employers to report severe work related injuries was implemented, Labor Department staffers in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Atlanta office noticed a disturbing and surprising trend – “numerous reports of fingertip amputations among workers using food slicers.”

That’s one finding in an OSHA document released Thursday about the 10,388 severe work-related injuries reported in 2015, the first full year of a federal reporting requirement. Injuries resulting in eye loss, amputation or hospitalization must be reported within 24 hours.  Included were 2,644 amputations and 7,636 hospitalizations. Employers were already required to report fatalities within eight hours.

Until the severe injury reporting requirement, OSHA officials didn’t have a full grasp of the situation. “Too often, we would investigate a fatal injury only to find a history of serious injuries at the same workplace,” the report says. “Each of those injuries was a wake-up call for safety that went unheeded.”

Even with the new requirement, officials still don’t have a complete accounting of severe injuries. OSHA knows the reported number is an under-count.

“We think the actual number might be twice as high,” Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels said by telephone.

Here is some of what OSHA said the reporting requirement revealed:

  • A woman’s arm was badly mangled in Chicago when “a conveyor loaded with liquid chocolate suddenly started up as a worker was cleaning a roller.”
  • A sanitation worker in a Missouri meat processing plant lost both lower arms when cleaning a mechanized blender that abruptly began operating.
  • A truck driver loading creamer in Idaho lost a fingertip when a valve cover snapped shut on his hand.
  • A worker’s arm was amputated after he tried to clear a conveyor jam in an Idaho sawmill.

While these examples are from the private sector, the U.S. Postal Service also ranks high on the list, number five out of 25, of industry groups reporting severe injuries.

That reporting, however, is largely self-reporting.

There are simply too few inspectors for the number of workplaces for every job to get a personal touch from a government official. Michaels said the agency uses 2,500 inspectors, including those with state agencies partnering with federal officials, but there are 7 million to 8 million workplaces.

“We can’t get to every workplace,” he said.

So, it tells the companies to inspect themselves.

In 62 percent of the incidents, OSHA said it responded “not by sending inspectors to the scene but by asking employers to conduct their own incident investigations and propose remedies to prevent future injuries.”

That sounds like asking the fox to report on security at the hen house. This is especially so considering “even after experiencing horrific employee injuries,” some employers continue placing workers at risk, OSHA said, adding: “Some have gone to great lengths to try to hide hazards in order to avoid fixing them.”

Yet, self-reporting seems to be working and has the backing of the AFL-CIO, which represents millions of workers across the country.

“The OSHA report shows that the OSHA Severe Injury Reporting rule issued last year is a common sense regulation that [is] helping to target dangerous workplaces and to spot emerging safety and health problems that pose a wider threat,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO safety and health director.

No matter how many inspectors, some companies will try to beat the system. That can be hazardous to workers’ health.

“In one stunning example,” OSHA reported, “a manufacturer tried to conceal an entire production line from OSHA inspectors after a staffing agency reported the amputation of a worker’s finger. When inspectors arrived, the employer closed interior doors and parked forklifts in front of them, then turned off the lights and told workers to be quiet. Inspectors who uncovered the back room found a row of machinery with exposed parts that could have caused other workers to lose their fingers.”

This case, however, isn’t representative of the whole.

“Most importantly,” said Seminario, “this rule is helping to get hazardous conditions fixed to keep other workers from being injured or killed.”

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