UNITED STATES - AUGUST 23: U.S. Department of Labor building (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

A federal judge on Thursday ruled that injury and illness records of America’s employers are not confidential and must be disclosed in a key decision that strikes down corporate and government secrecy around worker safety.

Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the federal Labor Department to release the logs, known as Form 300As, where employers note the number of people who were injured and died on the job, in response to a lawsuit filed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Reveal filed a Freedom of Information Act requesting the information more than two years ago. The government denied the request, citing an exemption in the law that shields government records collected for law enforcement purposes. After the lawsuit was filed, government attorneys from the Department of Justice defending the case soon dropped that argument and asserted that the injury logs could not be disclosed because they were confidential business records.

The ruling has broad implications. Understanding which employers are the most dangerous could motivate more employers to improve safety and provide workers with a deeper understanding of the risks associated with their jobs. The records can also help hold companies accountable. Last year, with help from warehouse workers, Reveal managed to obtain the injury records for some of Amazon’s warehouses, and discovered that Amazon’s injury rates for those were sky-high compared to the industry average.

“This case is a great win for freedom of access,” said D. Victoria Baranetsky, Reveal’s general counsel. “Not only did the court order the government to disclose the records but it, it stated that what qualifies as confidential is not a subjective test.’”

The judge in Reveal’s case noted that, “the court must examine whether the information actually is kept and treated as confidential, not whether the submitter considers it to be so.”

The court found that “the Form 300A information is both readily observable by and shared with employees, who have the right to make the information public.”

Under an Obama-era rule, the U.S. Department of Labor had required about 450,000 companies to electronically report their injury and illness records. The agency had intended to use the information to help prioritize OSHA investigations and post some of this data on its website.

But then President Trump was elected.

The Labor Department suspended the rule. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders and other industry groups had challenged the rule in court, arguing that they would force employers to disclose private information.

Companies have been required to record injuries and illnesses for nearly 50 years. From 1995 through 2011, OSHA collected the number of injuries recorded and hours worked, allowing it to track injury rates for tens of thousands of employers in hazardous industries. The data is available on the agency’s website. The program ended in anticipation of launching the new reporting requirements under the Obama-era rule.

The government could appeal the judge’s decision.