A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says employers consistently underreport worker injuries and illnesses and concludes that some employer safety programs can create disincentives for reporting injuries.

Union groups say the findings, released on Nov. 16, confirm safety programs that discourage the reporting of workplace injuries are undermining the safety and health of American workers. But employer groups maintain federal and state policies that emphasize fines and penalties over assistance create a culture that discourages employers from addressing safety problems before they lead to injuries.

GAO examined Occupational Safety and Health Administration audits from 2005 to 2007 and surveyed more than 1,000 occupational safety-and-health practitioners, as well as federal and state OSHA officials.

Among the 1,000 occupational safety and health practitioners surveyed, two-thirds said they observed workers who were afraid of disciplinary action from their employer for reporting occupational injuries. More than half said they were pressured by company officials to downplay injuries.

GAO concluded there are a number of disincentives discouraging accurate reporting of injuries: fear among employers that their workers’ compensation rates will increase and worries among employees that they will be terminated or face other disciplinary action.

Moreover, OSHA often overlooks information from workers about injuries and illnesses because it does not routinely interview them as part of its auditing process. GAO recommends that the U.S. Dept. of Labor direct OSHA to require inspectors to interview workers during record audits and minimize the time between the date injuries and illnesses are recorded by employers and the date they are audited.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says she welcomes the findings. “Many of the problems identified in the report are quite alarming, and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting,” she says.

Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of safety and health, says the GAO findings are “consistent with what we have been hearing from workers for years.” The AFL-CIO has conducted its own survey of rank-and-file union members and found similar results, she says, adding that safety-incentive programs in which workers are discouraged from reporting injuries ultimately prevent hazardous conditions from being addressed.

But Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, says federal and state regulators should focus on creating an environment in which employers are not discouraged from finding and reporting safety problems before they lead to an accident or injury. He says the most successful safety programs are ones that are more proactive, rather than reactive. “Incentive programs really ought to be structured around how well managers or supervisors do in putting in place the right safety measures and programs,” he says.