Nothing Works Like a Slap on The Wrist: Study of Safety Compliance

In its latest newsletter, OSHA highlights a new study that shows that citations and fines are effective in reducing work-related injuries.  The study, released on the Institute for Work and Health, reviews a number of other studies of work injuries and factors that may help prevent them.  It concludes that enforcement is a very effective way to promote safety.  It looks at a number of other initiatives and finds that they are less effective.  For example, a government inspection alone has a short-term effect on safety, but that the impact diminishes as time passes.

The conclusion that fines get employer focus may seem obvious but the study is important for a couple of reasons.  The first is the obvious point that nothing quite gets the attention of a business owner like a blow to the wallet.  As much as we talk about safety leadership starting at the top, a lot of business owners don’t share that philosophy and may not address problems until they are written up by OSHA.

The second point is the way OSHA has latched onto this study.   The agency is moving down a path of increased enforcement and it appears that OSHA’s leaders see this study as justifying their approach.  As OSHA’s head, David Michaels said in the newsletter, “This confirms what we have been saying for a long time – that OSHA inspections and penalties are important and effective components of a comprehensive strategy to improve workplace safety and health.”

The problem is that this view of workplace safety is one-dimensional.  Yes, there are companies that will only respond to fines, but there are other types of companies as well:

  • Companies that deliver world-class safety as a part of the overall quality of their company (and would whether OSHA is watching or not).
  • Companies that want a strong safety culture, but lack the resources to access and implement best practices.  They benefit most from partnerships with federal agencies and other companies in their industry.
  • Companies where the owners care about their workers and think they are operating safely, but have not been exposed to advances in safety and new regulations.  They benefit from awareness campaigns and, if they truly lack knowledge of safety thresholds, inspections.

OSHA very clearly wants to take a “get tough” approach to industry and this study seems to support that.  However, it is wrong to assume that every company is going to ignore safety until OSHA knocks on the door. It ignores the fact that most safety improvements are generated by industry itself and they happen because companies believe they are the right thing to do.