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Policy: Labor

Updated: Labor secretary inaccurately cites his department's data in hearing

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Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Labor,Alabama,Thomas Perez,Auto Industry

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez incorrectly cited data from his own department in a congressional hearing Wednesday to justify heightened safety inspections of auto parts manufacturers in the South, particularly Alabama. The actual data indicates that the state's manufactures maintain a lower injury rate than the national average, not a higher one as Perez has insisted.

After inquiries from the Washington Examiner, Labor Department officials continued to insist that Alabama had a higher injury rate despite the fact that this was contradicted by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is one of the department's own agencies.

On Jan. 15, the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced a “regional emphasis program” for the auto parts manufacturing industry in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. In other words, it would face extra scrutiny from OSHA. It became the subject of a contentious exchange between Perez and Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., during a Wednesday committee hearing.

Roby has contended that the inspections are part of a broader plan to assist Big Labor's efforts to organize Southern auto plants. She has cited as evidence a letter last year from OSHA to the Service Employees International Union stating that it would allow union officials to accompany its officials during their inspections under certain circumstances.

During an House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Roby asked why the region’s auto parts manufacturers have been singled out for inspections since their accident rate was below the national average.

Perez said her data was wrong, and that "Alabama in particular" had a problem. He stated the national rate for occupational injuries in auto parts manufacturing was 3 cases per 100 workers, and that Alabama’s rate was "50 percent" above that — or about 4.5.

He stated: "The reason we added this regional emphasis program is because when we see data and we have experiences showing that there is a problem, then we put that emphasis in the areas where there is a problem."

A look at the at BLS's 2012 data on occupational injuries for auto parts manufacturers does not support Perez's testimony. The national rate is actually 5.3 per 100 workers, not the 3.0 he claimed. The rate was 4.8 for Alabama and 3.7 for Georgia, placing both below the national average.

An official at BLS confirmed this, adding that the 2012 data is the most recent available. The caveat here is that the Alabama and Georgia rates are for transportation equipment manufacturing, which combines cars with boats, planes and other vehicles. The bureau does not break the data down any further. The data for Mississippi was not available. The state does not report its information to BLS.

It is unlikely that Perez was speaking off the cuff in his testimony. Roby had sent him a letter regarding the OSHA matter prior to the hearing, and he acknowledged receiving it. He would have therefore known to expect her questions. So why were his numbers off?

Roby spokesman Todd Stacy said the Labor Department did send over data to back up its claim after the hearing, but it was the BLS numbers from 2010. The rate for Alabama that year was 6.8 per 100 workers -- ironically showing the state made significant progress in lowering the injury rate in the two years before OSHA singled it out.

"His stats are outdated, incomplete, and incongruous. The ones Martha cites are newer and more comprehensive," Stacy said.

After inquiries from the Washington Examiner, Labor Department spokesman Stephen Barr also cited the 2010 information, stating it was "the most recent data available from BLS." At press time he had not responded to inquiries from the Examiner regarding why they are using 2010 data when 2012 data is available from the Labor Department itself.

During the hearing, Roby also pressed Perez on the OSHA letter to SEIU. Perez defended it, saying that the union official had to be requested by an employee of the company being inspected before they could come along. He further claimed the letter was merely reaffirming a policy in place since 1971.

UPDATE: Labor Department spokesman Stephen Barr responded via email on Friday:

Secretary Perez accurately cited the most recent Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) data on "cases with days away from work, job transfer, or restriction" (known as DART) in motor vehicle parts manufacturing (NAICS 3363) in Alabama and comparable national estimates for the same year. In 2010, SOII showed that the rate of DART cases in the motor vehicle parts manufacturing sector in Alabama was 4.6 per 100 workers compared to the national rate of 3.0.

The motor vehicle parts manufacturing industry sector was not published by SOII for Alabama in 2011 and 2012. The most comparable sector that was published is transportation equipment manufacturing which is a much broader industry definition and includes such things as automobile, truck, and boat manufacturing. (In 2010, motor vehicle parts manufacturing represented 28.3 percent of total employment in transportation equipment manufacturing.) The most recent DART data available, for transportation equipment manufacturing from 2012, show a DART rate of 2.6 cases per 100 workers in Alabama and 2.8 nationally.

DART estimates are used in such comparisons because they only include those injuries and illnesses that resulted in days away from work, job transfer, or restriction. Other recordable cases are those that meet the threshold for reporting, but the employee was able to continue working as before without time away from work. Your article uses estimates that include all cases, which is inconsistent with the data presented by the Secretary. For example, the article states that the national rate for auto parts manufacturing in 2012 "is actually 5.3 per 100 workers, not the 3.0 (the Secretary) claimed." The 5.3 rate is for total recordable cases in 2012. The Secretary was citing the DART rate for 2010, which is comparable to the 2010 DART estimates for motor vehicle parts manufacturing in Alabama.

A few points in response: Perez did not state in his testimony that he was referring to 2010 data or clarify that he was focusing on a particular subsection of injuries as opposed to all workplace injuries, much less give any rationale for why that was better than the BLS's 2012 data. He was simply cherry-picking the numbers without bothering to explain this to the — understandably confused — members of Congress before whom he was testifying.

As Barr notes, even under the narrower DART category of injuries the department says the secretary was referring to, the 2012 BLS data "show[s] a DART rate of 2.6 cases per 100 workers in Alabama and 2.8 nationally," showing the state is still below the national average.

Granted, that is in the broader category of transportation manufacturing, so it is conceivable that auto parts manufacturing workplace safety in Alabama is actually much worse and that airplane and boat parts manufacturers are super-safe and are therefore holding the overall average down. But the department has no proof of that. That data apparently isn't available to anyone. Despite that, the department has decided that Alabama — along with Georgia and Mississippi — must be singled out for special scrutiny.

This story was published at 5:39 p.m. April 3 and updated at 5:10 p.m. April 4.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner